Saturday, December 24, 2011

Creature Feature: Reindeer!

'Twas the night before Christmas...and Kuro was making a blog entry. Yeah, this blogger doesn't even take a day off for Christmas. That's what made today's entry to hard to pick. But hey, I figure some of us will be seeing these guys on our roofs tonight:


...wha? Wait a minute, that looks nothing like the reindeer we've grown up with. Sure, it has antlers, but it's nowhere near the flighty, slender deer we're all used to seeing. What's going on?

You were born that way, Rudolph.

The marketing people have corrupted us again: real reindeer, or caribou (Rangifer tarandus), do not look like they could fly at all. The "reindeer" we know and love have plenty of traits taken from regular deer and antelope. Just about the only thing holiday marketers get right is that reindeer are native to northern Europe, Russia, and northern North America. There are several subspecies of reindeer, and it is almost impossible to pick exactly one to focus on. They all have some very interesting adaptations to the tundra environment, so please forgive me if I switch subspecies every now and again.

Reindeer are perfectly adapted for the icy cold and scarce resources of the tundra. Their nostrils have more surface area than the noses of most mammals, so any frigid air is heated by the creature's body before it reaches the lungs. Their hooves becomes spongy in the summer and tighten up in the winter, allowing for a great grip at both extreme temperatures. They will eat virtually any plants they come across, including lichen in winter and acid trip mushrooms. Of course, their fur also changes seasonally...but that certainly is not unique to reindeer.

That nose helps keeps reindeer from inhaling cold air. No, it isn't red.

Unlike most deer, both sexes of reindeer grow antlers. This is why the sexes of Santa's reindeer can be so hard to pin down; if you've ever wondered why a reindeer named "Vixen" (a female name) had antlers, wonder no more - it's totally possible! The exact type of antlers often vary by subspecies, but the rule of thumb is that the farther north you go, the spindlier the antlers get.

There are a few other differences between northern and southern reindeer.  Northern reindeer tend to have whiter coats and smaller size overall. One type from Svalbard Island does not get over 200 pounds - that's small for something usually considered a giant ungulate! Domesticated reindeer are shorter and heavier than wild reindeer on the whole, which makes one wonder how Santa's tame deer can fly. Oh, magic.

Strangest of all, reindeer are thought to be the only mammals capable of seeing ultraviolet light.  Although an arctic landscape may look super plain to us, things on said landscape stand out in ultraviolet light. Urine, for example, is easily visible in UV. Combine this with the relatively low light for a good chunk of the year, and BAM! Suddenly you get a mammal that can see trippy colors.Nobody knows how the reindeer are not blinded by the ultraviolet light, but we're always looking for clever gene splicing potential. Here's to looking at the sun without being blinded!

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