4 languages
Rangifer tarandus
Population size
Life Span
15-20 yrs
Top speed
80 km/h
80-182 kg
85-150 cm
162-214 cm

The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus ), also known as the caribou in North America, is a species of deer with circumpolar distribution, native to Arctic, subarctic, tundra, boreal, and mountainous regions of Northern Europe, Siberia, and North America. This includes both sedentary and migratory populations. It is the only representative of the genus Rangifer. Herd size varies greatly in different geographic regions.

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R. tarandus varies in size and colour from the smallest subspecies, the Svalbard reindeer, to the largest, the boreal woodland caribou. The North American range of caribou extends from Alaska through the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut into the boreal forest and south through the Canadian Rockies. The barren-ground caribou, Porcupine caribou, and Peary caribou live in the tundra, while the shy boreal woodland caribou prefer the boreal forest. The Porcupine caribou and the barren-ground caribou form large herds and undertake lengthy seasonal migrations from birthing grounds to summer and winter feeding grounds in the tundra and taiga. The migrations of Porcupine caribou herds are among the longest of any mammal. Barren-ground caribou are also found in Kitaa in Greenland, but the larger herds are in Alaska, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.

The Taimyr herd of migrating Siberian tundra reindeer (R. t. sibiricus ) in Russia is the largest wild reindeer herd in the world, varying between 400,000 and 1,000,000. What was once the second largest herd is the migratory boreal woodland caribou (R. t. caribou ) George River herd in Canada, with former variations between 28,000 and 385,000. As of January 2018, there are fewer than 9,000 animals estimated to be left in the George River herd, as reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The New York Times reported in April 2018 of the disappearance of the only herd of southern mountain woodland caribou in the contiguous United States with an expert calling it "functionally extinct" after the herd's size dwindled to a mere three animals. After the last individual, a female, was translocated to a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Canada, the woodland caribou was considered extirpated from the contiguous United States.

Some subspecies are rare and two have already become extinct: the Queen Charlotte Islands caribou of Canada and the East Greenland caribou from East Greenland. Historically, the range of the sedentary boreal woodland caribou covered more than half of Canada and into the northern states of the contiguous United States. Woodland caribou have disappeared from most of their original southern range and were designated as threatened in 2002 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Environment Canada reported in 2011 that there were approximately 34,000 boreal woodland caribou in 51 ranges remaining in Canada (Environment Canada, 2011b). Siberian tundra reindeer herds are also in decline, and Rangifer tarandus is considered to be vulnerable by the IUCN.

Arctic peoples have depended on caribou for food, clothing, and shelter, such as the Caribou Inuit, the inland-dwelling Inuit of the Kivalliq Region in northern Canada, the Caribou Clan in the Yukon, the Iñupiat, the Inuvialuit, the Hän, the Northern Tutchone, and the Gwichʼin (who followed the Porcupine caribou for millennia). Hunting wild reindeer and herding of semi-domesticated reindeer are important to several Arctic and subarctic peoples such as the Duhalar for meat, hides, antlers, milk, and transportation. The Sámi people (Sápmi) have also depended on reindeer herding and fishing for centuries.: IV : 16 : IV  In Sápmi, reindeer are used to pull a pulk, a Nordic sled.

Male ("bulls") and female ("cows") reindeer can grow antlers annually, although the proportion of females that grow antlers varies greatly between population and season. Antlers are typically larger on males. In traditional United States Christmas legend, Santa Claus's reindeer pull a sleigh through the night sky to help Santa Claus deliver gifts to good children on Christmas Eve.

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Reindeer are large deer, with a thick coat that is brown during the summer, and during the winter it is gray. They have a pale-colored chest and undersides, with their rump and tail being white. Males and females both have antlers, with those of males being larger and more complex. Males usually shed them after breeding, whereas females don’t do so until spring. They have specialized hooves that will adapt in relation to the season. In summer their footpads turn spongy to give extra traction, while in winter the pads tighten and shrink to expose the edge of the hoof so they can cut into the snow and ice so that they don’t slip. They have nasal turbinate bones which serve to increase the surface area in their nostrils. Cold air can thus be warmed up by their body heat prior to entering their lungs.



Reindeer are native to the Arctic, subarctic, tundra, boreal, and mountainous regions of northern Europe, Siberia, and North America. Some populations of this species are sedentary while others perform long seasonal migrations from birthing grounds to summer and winter feeding grounds.

Reindeer habitat map

Climate zones

Reindeer habitat map
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Habits and Lifestyle

Reindeer travel distances that are greater than those traveled by any other terrestrial mammal. Migration leads them back to the calving grounds, and this use of traditional grounds is the way in which reindeer herds are defined. They are diurnal animals and they live in herds, the largest groups numbering tens of thousands, forming during summer months. As the cooler weather arrives, herds become smaller but the numbers will swell again during the breeding period and the fall migration. Most reindeer spend the winter in forested areas, as snow conditions here are more favorable. They can find food under the snow, presumably by being able to smell it. They use their front hooves to dig craters to reach the food. Dominant reindeer will frequently take over the craters dug by subordinate individuals.

Group name
Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

Reindeer are herbivores (folivores, graminivores) and mainly eat lichens in winter, especially reindeer lichen. They also eat the leaves of willows and birches, as well as sedges and grasses.

Mating Habits

210-240 days
1 fawn
1 month
doe, hind
buck, stag

One male will mate with multiple females, competing for females during the autumn rut, which is during October and early November. At this time, males take part in fights that leave them exhausted and injured. Dominant males control access to groups numbering 5 to 15 females. The males stop eating at this time and lose a lot of their body reserves. Gestation lasts 210 - 240 days and a single calf is produced. Within an hour of birth, calves have the ability to walk after their mother, and at one day old they are able to run fast. The young begin to be weaned at one month, when they begin to graze, occasionally suckling from their mother up until the winter, then reaching full independence. Reindeer are sexually mature at 1 - 3 years old.


Population threats

Oil and mineral exploration may threaten the reindeer habitat. Humans hunt this species heavily for meat, fur and antlers.

Population number

According to the University of Michigan (Museum of Zoology), the total population size of the Reindeer is around 5 million individuals. According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of this species is around 2,890,410 mature individuals. Specific Reindeer populations have been estimated in such areas: Alaska - 660,000 individuals; Canada - 1.3 million individuals; Greenland - around 73,430 individuals; Norway - 6,000 individuals; Finland - around 1,900 individuals; Russia - 831,500 individuals; Mongolia - fewer than 1,000 individuals. Overall, currently, reindeer are classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are decreasing.

Ecological niche

Reindeer have a dramatic effect on vegetation in their range. They are important prey species for bears, wolves, and other large predators, especially during the season of calving.


Reindeer were some of the last animals that humans domesticated, considered by some to still not be fully tame. There are about 2.5 million domesticated reindeer in nine countries, with about 100,000 people tending to them, being approximately half the world’s total reindeer population. Domestication is believed to have begun between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Siberian owners of reindeer ride on them (Siberian reindeer being larger than those in Scandinavia). A single owner may have hundreds, sometimes thousands of animals. Fur and meat are important income sources. Towards the close of the 19th-century, people introduced reindeer into Alaska and there they interbreed with native reindeer subspecies. In Scandinavian countries reindeer meat is popular. Reindeer antlers are powdered and sold to Asian markets as an aphrodisiac, medicinal or nutritional supplement.


Fun Facts for Kids

  • In most populations both the male and the female reindeer grow antlers and they are the only cervid species in which females grow them as well as males. Antlers begin to grow on male reindeer in March or April and on female reindeer in May or June. This process is called antlerogenesis. Antlers grow very quickly every year on the males. As the antlers grow, they are covered in thick velvet, filled with blood vessels, and spongy in texture. The velvet that covers growing antlers is highly vascularised skin. When the antler growth is fully grown and hardened, the velvet is shed or rubbed off.
  • Reindeer hooves adapt to the season: in the summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, the footpads become sponge-like and provide extra traction. In the winter, the pads shrink and tighten, exposing the rim of the hoof, which cuts into the ice and crusted snow to keep reindeer from slipping. This also enables them to dig down (an activity known as "cratering") through the snow to their favorite food, a lichen known as reindeer lichen.
  • The knees of many subspecies of reindeer are adapted to produce a clicking sound as they walk or run. The sounds originate in the tendons of the knees and may be audible from several hundred meters away.
  • Reindeer can see light with wavelengths as short as 320 nm (i.e. in the ultraviolet range), considerably below the human threshold of 400 nm. It is thought that this ability helps them to survive in the Arctic, because many objects that blend into the landscape in light visible to humans, such as urine and fur, produce sharp contrasts in ultraviolet. A specific layer of tissue in the eye of Arctic reindeer changes in color from gold in summer to blue in winter to improve their vision during times of continuous darkness, and perhaps enable them to better spot predators.
  • Reindeer are ruminants having a four-chambered stomach. They are the only large mammal able to metabolize lichen owing to specialized bacteria and protozoa in their gut; this is a unique adaptation among mammals.
  • Around the world, public interest in reindeer peaks in the Christmas period. According to folklore, Santa Claus's sleigh is pulled by flying reindeer through the night sky to help deliver gifts to good children on Christmas Eve.


1. Reindeer Wikipedia article -
2. Reindeer on The IUCN Red List site -

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