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Adapted for the cold and long journeys...

Posted: Thursday 17th December 2015 by Rachel


If any animal was suited to pulling Santa's sleigh on an epic trans-global journey it would perhaps be reindeer.

Nomadic tribes have used reindeer to haul sleds throughout Arctic Scandinavia and Russia for perhaps as long as 3,000 years. Reindeer are also supremely adapted cold weather and long journeys. Herds of reindeer in North America (where they are called caribou) undergo a massive annual migration to the Arctic. Travelling distances of more than 3,000 miles, it’s the furthest migration of any land mammal. They are also quick, reindeer can run at up to 50 miles per hour and, at just a day old, a young reindeer can already outrun a person.

In the cold of the arctic, or a cold starry Christmas night, reindeer still stay warm. Just as we wear layers of clothing to keep warm, the coat of a reindeer has two specially adapted layers of fur. Their undercoat is dense and woolly, with as many as 13,000 hairs per square inch. Their outer coat has longer hollow air-filled hairs at a density of 5,000 hairs per square inch. This provides fantastic insulation which is so efficient that when a reindeer lies down in the snow, the snow doesn’t melt. The reindeer stays warm inside and their coat doesn’t get wet from melted snow.

Reindeer may not have red noses but they do have remarkable noses. Reindeer have a fantastic sense of smell. In the winter months they eat lichens and mosses which they can sniff out even when hidden beneath 60cm of snow. And their noses help them keep warm too! Their specialised noses actually warm the incoming air so it’s not cold when it enters their lungs.

Even their feet are adapted for life in the cold. Reindeer have extra-large, broad hooves that act like snowshoes and prevent them from sinking into snow. If you think you hear the clip-clop of hooves on your roof on Christmas Eve, it may not be reindeer’s hooves at all, but it could be the distinctive “click click click” reindeer make as they walk. The clicks are made as a tendon slips over a bone in the foot, making a clicking sound. In an arctic blizzard or a dark Christmas night, each reindeer can hear where the other reindeer are.

Teams of sleigh pulling reindeer may visit our towns and cities over Christmas but the only free-ranging herd of reindeer in Britain are in the Cairngorms in Scotland. This herd was introduced to Scotland in 1952 by a Swedish reindeer herder. The last reliable record of a wild reindeer in Britain was 8,300 years ago. They probably disappeared from Britain as the climate warmed after the Ice Age, with additional pressure from hunting also contributing to their decline.

If you are out in the countryside over the next few days, keep a look-out in patches of mud or snow for tracks and trails left behind by animals. Of course you won’t see any reindeer hoof-prints because Santa’s reindeer all fly!  


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