Robert Seutter – Santa True, August 2019, Christmas Performer Workshops (CPW)
Part 1: Reindeer Info for Those Who Want to be in the Know!
For those of you who have been in our workshops, you know that we recommend creating your own North Pole, developing details for character work and back story. This is really handy to deal with random questions and for making your character more believable. One of the things that “Mr. C and Mrs. C and the elves” deal with a lot would be the reindeer. They would be experts. That’s one of the things that folks, and kids in particular, tend to ask about. It never hurts to have a stack of handy facts (and stories!) up your fuzzy sleeves. Reindeer are clearly some of the most remarkable creatures in the world. And teaching folks about reindeer is edu-tainment at its finest.
Before we consider magical or historical components, let’s talk about the animals scientifically.
Scientific Name: Rangifer tarandus. Rangifer is the Latin generic name and probably a modification of Middle French rangier, from Old Norse hreindȳri (horned animal). Tarandus is the specific scientific name, so essentially they are saying “Reindeer-Reindeer.” And yes, they are a species of deer, Cervidae.
There is an obsolete star constellation called Tarandus (reindeer) near Draco and Ursus Major. The Sami people recognize another, larger constellation called Sarvvis (which is not an obsolete constellation in their community).
If you were to look down on earth from the North Pole, imagine a wide band encircling the northern part of the planet: Arctic, sub-Arctic, down into Northern America, Northern Europe, and Siberia. Various species of reindeer live across that zone. Some reindeer herds travel thousands of miles across this area, moving as nature demands.
What was that? In North America? Yup. We have reindeer, except we call them caribou. They are both very similar and yet, a bit different. The University of Alaska says there is a small DNA difference between reindeer and caribou. Caribou tend to be taller and thinner. Reindeer tend to be shorter and stockier. When being pursued, caribou will split up and reindeer will stay together as herd. Technically European/Asian and American caribou are one and the same. The name caribou may come from the French word for “snow shoveler.” And at one point Siberian domestic reindeer were brought over here, and some of them interbred with our caribou herds. (That importation is fascinating bit of history, by the way.)
Reindeer are herbivorous and ruminants. This means that like cattle, they can take plant-based food, ferment it in a specialized stomach, and then gain nutrition from it. (Plus heat!) This means they “chew their cud.” This is a pretty neat trick.
The process takes a lot of time and energy. They need to eat and ruminate constantly. They eat mosses, ferns, grasses, plus the shoots and leaves of shrubs and trees, especially willow and birch. (They will also eat birds, eggs, and rodents, but we don’t have to tell the kids that.)
They are one of the few animals that can process lichen—one species is called reindeer moss. That, in itself, is remarkable. They have a special enzyme that allows them to do it. Lichen is a symbiotic colony organism (algae and fungi) that is very hard to digest, and it grows VERY slowly. It provides about two-thirds of the food supply for caribou and reindeer that roam across the north. Not all reindeer species migrate. A reindeer herd (varying from small groups, to 50,000 -500,000) can wipe out an area’s reindeer moss, taking years to grow back. It’s one of the reasons many herds are constantly moving. An adult reindeer eats 9-18 pounds of vegetation a day. Lichen is one of the few plants that will grow in the harsh northern climate, even under ice and snow! Reindeer can crater (or dig) through three feet of ice with their sharp hooves to get at the lichen.
Some of the herds will move over 3,000 miles in a year, and that can be more than 23 miles a day! Tundra reindeer are usually the ones that migrate the most. Reindeer will tend to travel into the wind, to scent predators.
There are various species of reindeer, some relatively small and some big. The smallest reindeer species is the Svalbard, which can get up to about 200 lbs and are short and round. On the other hoof, the Boreal Woodland caribou can get up to 470 lbs and about four feet at the shoulder. Don’t forget that the moose is a member of the deer family too! Nobody wants to mess with Chris-Moose. (The one at the North Pole is actually a sweetie, by the way.)
There are two major groups of reindeer: tundra and woodland. You can often identify where reindeer are from by the color of their coats and their size. Reindeer who live in a forest environment tend to be darker and bigger. The ones from colder climes are usually lighter and smaller. The antlers on the very northern reindeer tend to be thinner. According to some reindeer breeders here in the US, one reason they might be smaller and lighter could be inbreeding (influenced from living in isolation on an island) or selective breeding (locally in the U.S.). According to the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game, Santa’s reindeer do visit once in a while, and they gave them an official name, “R.T. saintnicolas magicalus.” You can check out this lovely link: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=santasreindeer.main and enjoy all the features on their fun website.
On average, reindeer females tend to be smaller (170-260 lbs) and the males larger (200-460 lbs). Some males can grow larger than 700 lbs! Reindeer males are called bulls, the females are called cows, and the young are called calves. Did you know that a one-day old newborn reindeer calf can outrun an Olympic sprinter?!
Both female and male reindeer grow antlers, and reindeer have the largest antlers for their body size of any in the deer family. Reindeer females are also the only female deer species that have antlers. One key way to distinguish a reindeer from regular deer is that their antlers have two separate groups of points—one group lower and forward, then one group higher. When you look at a lot of Christmas artwork of reindeer, you’ll notice that many artists don’t know there is a difference. They often use standard white tail deer antlers in their artwork. Reindeer have a different body profile and antlers.
Growing antlers is tricky work. Antler growth is one of fastest known types of tissue growth in mammals, and they can grow a quarter of an inch a day! During this time, the antlers are very delicate and are covered by a fuzzy covering called “velvet.” While their antlers are in the velvet, it takes a lot of energy and blood flow to grow them. They are true bone and solid. Reindeer bodies change during the seasons. In August the velvet comes off (it’s a messy process) and during September and October, the males go into rut, battling it out for the females. During rut, the males stop eating. By November, they are often exhausted and the males start to shed their antlers.
However, the females will calve in early spring, and so they still have their antlers to deal with predators (wolves, bears, golden eagles) and to help dig for food. It might take about six years for a reindeer to grow a fully developed rack in the wild, but they can have pretty good set in three to four years. Some reindeer can live between 15-18 years, but that’s a very lucky reindeer who can do so in the wild. Males mature at about six years old and females at about four years old.
Reindeer wranglers are very conscious that just one bump could cause their male reindeer to have just one horn, which looks odd during the Christmas season. If you are working with live reindeer, it can be like facing a head full of steak knives. Even if they hook your suit, never grab them by the antlers. If it’s a male, he may think you are challenging him. Offer him a cookie and get someone to untangle you carefully.
A pro tip for us Christmas types: Always Antlers, Never Horns. Deer can shed their antlers, which are often branched. Horns are permanent part of the animal (such as on bison and bighorn sheep). Horns are hollow and made of keratin (similar to finger nail material). It’s important that folks leave shed antlers in nature. It’s an important source of calcium for a variety of animals, and reindeer have been known to chew on them to get some of that calcium back.
Reindeer are fantastically adapted for survival in cold climates. Their noses (completely covered with hair) are specially adapted to warm the air before they breathe it, and to keep moisture in. That nose is also their key to finding food and watching out for predators. They have a superb sense of smell. They have two layers of hair, a dense undercoat and a top layer of hollow hair that is an amazing insulator. This hollow hair floats like a cork, allowing them to swim long distances at 4-6 miles per hour. It also allows a reindeer to lay down on the snow and not melt it! They shed the outer layer in the summer to keep cool.
Reindeer can run up to 50 mph. And when they move, they often make a clicking sound as a tendon slips over a foot bone. There is some belief that this may be evolved function so that they can find each other in the fog. Their hairy hooves give them traction on snow and ice, and they have two “toes” that change depending on the season. In the summer, their hooves become broad, flat, and soft to help with mud and swimming. In the winter, they become hard and sharp to dig into the ice and snow (cratering) and help with their footing over rugged terrain.
Reindeer eyes also change with the seasons, changing colors (although it might be hard to see). Their eyes are gold in the summer and blue in the winter, to adapt to the light. It has been recently discovered that reindeer are the only mammal that can see in ultraviolet light frequencies. They really can see a polar bear (ice bear) in a snow storm!
Reindeer communicate with each other using grunts, snorts, and short rough calls. A newborn calf can stand just one hour after birth. And calving time is the most dangerous time for reindeer, when the predators tend to show up.
It’s believed that reindeer were domesticated by Arctic people over 3,000 years ago. They are the only deer species to have been domesticated. In ancient days, when things were cooler, they lived as far south as Nevada and Spain. In fact, there are ancient megaliths called the “Reindeer Stones” found in Siberia and Mongolia depicting flying reindeer, dating approximately 1000 BCE. Reindeer have been used for hauling, riding, and of course for milk, meat, and hides for a very long time!
It should be pointed out that the reindeer you see being herded up north are usually only semi-domesticated, and so usually not all that warm and cuddly. They are on their own a lot. The ones that you meet at events have usually been hand-fed and trained all their lives, but even then, they can be grumpy.
It’s estimated that world reindeer population is currently about 5 million, but they are having serious challenges. Global warming is hurting their main food source, and the warm weather makes it much harder for them to get to their food in winter. Warmer rain turns to ice rather than snow, and so they starve because they run out of energy getting through the ice.
Likewise, disease is getting worse as the heat goes up, and as deer move into areas where moose and reindeer live. Parasites, insects, and sickness are becoming more prevalent. Breeders in the US are very careful and are facing serious challenges, often unable to move reindeer over state lines, causing them many problems. Being a reindeer breeder/farmer is not an easy job. When we see reindeer at our Christmas events, those presenters have earned every penny the hard way.
And a final reminder for Christmas Performers: Unless you know the reindeer wranglers first hand, do not handle or feed the reindeer, or enter their pens without permission. Likewise, don’t show up and start taking photos with the reindeer and families until you have worked this out with all the parties concerned first. The handlers own the photographic rights of those animals, just like you own the right to your image. Our audiences may assume that those are Santa’s reindeer, but unless you brought them, you should chat with the handlers first.
Stay tuned for Part Two, as we talk about the reindeer Christmas lore connection!