December 18 – On Donner

Today’s factismal: The word “reindeer” means “deer deer”.

It is beginning to look a lot like Xmas and one of the most important parts of that look is the number of reindeer that are sprouting up. You can see them as lawn ornaments, on Christmas cards, and standing patiently by Santa’s sleigh. But what you can’t see is that their popularity is relatively recent. While Santa Claus has been a part of Christmas since the 1400’s, the reindeer only date to Clement Moore’s famous poem in 1823.

A reindeer standing next to somebody's sleigh (My camera)

A reindeer standing next to somebody’s sleigh
(My camera)

Though they may be relatively new to the Christmas biz, reindeer have a much longer history than that. They were well-known to such ancient scientists as Aristotle (who called them “tarandos” or “draggers” for their habit of dragging their feet in the snow to look for food) and were domesticated for milk and meat by people in the snowier parts of Europe as far back as 3,000 BC; even today, reindeer meatballs are a popular food in much of Scandinavia. And that ancient relationship with people helps explain why they are known by so many names. In Canada and parts of Alaska, they are called caribou (“snow shoveler”) while in other parts of Alaska they are called tuktu. In Scandinavia, they are called reindeer (“deer deer”). And in the Russian steppes, they are called pücö (“cattle”).

"You want to call me what?" (My camera)

“You want to call me what?”
(My camera)

No matter what you call them, reindeer are magnificent animals. They are typically about seven feet long and weigh upwards of 350 pounds, with the males being slightly bigger than the females. Unfortunately for armchair biologists, both the males and the females grow antlers every year (unusual for deer) which makes telling the sex of a reindeer difficult to anyone who isn’t a reindeer. And, in a fascinating example of adaptation, the reindeer’s feet change depending on the season. During the summer when the tundra turns marshy, the pad on their feet expands to give them more stable traction. But during the winter, the pad retracts so that the horny hooves are exposed for gripping the ice and snow. Another of their cold-weather adaptations is that they can see into the ultraviolet which allows them to spy the scat of other reindeer and the fur of predators that would blend into the snow otherwise. And though they live in vast herds of animals, it is rare that you will see a reindeer in the wild. Much like any other wild or even domesticated animal, they spend much of their time in places that a human wouldn’t enjoy (e.g., in a blizzard looking for food).

So what should you do if you do see a reindeer (or any other wild animal)? First, think about how lucky you are; most people wouldn’t have the  chance to see something that big in the wild. Next, use your phone or camera to take a picture of it so that you will always remember the moment. And finally, report what you saw on Wildlife Sightings. This web site was set up specifically to allow citizen scientists like you to report the animals that they see; the data that you collect is then used by scientists around the world to measure biodiversity (which tells us how healthy an area is) and to discover new species and track old ones. To participate, head on over to:
http://www.wildlifesightings.net/

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