Creature Feature – Caribou


Rangifer tarandus
Range: Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Northern Europe, Northern Asia
Height: 30–60 inches at the shoulder
Weight: 130–600 pounds
Lifespan: up to 20 years

Caribou inhabit the tundra and boreal forests in Canada, the northern United States, Europe, and Asia. In Europe and the Russian Far East caribou are kept in herds and used for meat, fur, and milk. Tame caribou pull sleighs and carry loads. In Europe caribou are called reindeer. In the United States a small domesticated type of caribou is called a reindeer.

Caribou are members of the cervids, or the deer family. They are unique among the cervids as both males and females have antlers. They use their antlers to dig in the snow and unearth the food underneath. Males shed their antlers in early December after the rut (mating) season while females shed them when they give birth in the spring. Yes, this means Santa’s reindeer are most likely all girls!

The name Caribou originates from the Native American word Mi’kmaq which means ‘shoveller’. This is a reference to shovel-like design of the edges of their hooves which they use when foraging for Lichen. Lichens make up the bulk of the caribou’s winter diet. Other foods include fungi, moss, herbs, sedges, grasses, shrubs, and young trees. Caribou are a ruminant, which means they have a four chambered stomach and chew their cud.

The caribou is covered with a thick coat of fur that keeps them warm and protected from the elements. They have a soft wooly underfur that insulates the caribou by holding in its body heat. Over the underfur is a thick layer of guard hairs. The guard hairs are hollow and fill up with air. The guard hairs protect the caribou’s skin from rain, snow, and wind.

A caribou’s hoof is also specially adapted for moving across the hard, snow-packed surface in winter. Foot pads inside the hooves shrink and harden while the hoof edges get longer and hair lengthen between the toes, covering the pads. The hairs keep the hoof cold resistant, and the hoof edges provide traction when walking on ice and snow.

Although caribou are generally silent animals, they make a unique clicking sound when they walk. This sound is due to tendons that roll around a small bone in their foot. This allows the herd to stay in contact with one another. The sound can be heard up to 30 feet away.

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