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reindeer, ruminant mammal, genus Rangifer, of the deer family, found in arctic and subarctic regions of Eurasia and North America. It is the only deer in which both sexes have antlers. The Eurasian reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, is a small deer, the male standing about 4 ft (120 cm) high at the shoulder and weighing about 250 lb (113 kg), but it is extremely strong and has great powers of endurance. A reindeer can travel 40 mi (64 km) a day, pulling twice its own weight on a sled. Reindeer have long fur, light brown in summer and whitish in winter, with dense woolly undercoats. The antlers are many pronged, with characteristically curved main stems that sweep back and up from the forehead, then turn forward. The hooves are broad and rounded and in winter become concave, providing a good grip on icy ground. Reindeer are gregarious and migratory; they travel hundreds of miles between their summer and winter grounds in herds of up to 200,000 animals. They feed on a variety of plant matter, particularly grasses in summer and lichen in winter.

Reindeer have been hunted for perhaps 30,000 years. They have been domesticated for many centuries in Lapland, N Siberia, and Mongolia, where they may be used for meat, milk, clothing, and transportation. They are used both to pull sleds and to carry burdens and riders. The Laplanders until recently were completely dependent upon the reindeer for their livelihood and followed the herds on their annual migrations.

Reindeer living in a wild state in Eurasia are probably descended in part from domesticated strains. The wild reindeer of North America, called caribou, are larger than, but otherwise quite similar to, the Eurasian species. They have never been domesticated. Domesticated reindeer were introduced into Alaska from Siberia in the 1890s and became essential to the economy of the Alaskan Eskimo. Herds were established in Canada in the 1930s.

Reindeer are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Artiodactyla, family Cervidae.


See P. S. Zhigunov, ed., Reindeer Husbandry (tr. 1968); D. F. Olson, Alaska Reindeer Herdsmen (1969).

Reindeer Lake

Reindeer Lake, one of the largest lakes in Canada, 2,467 sq mi (6,390 sq km), NE Sask. and NW Man. The Reindeer River drains it S to the Churchill River. The lake has many islands and is noted for its commercial and sport fishing.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


The natural habitat of the reindeer, or Arctic deer, spans the northernmost reaches of Russia, Siberia, and the Scandinavian countries. Reindeer also roam across Canada, where they are known as caribou. Reindeer differ from other deer not only in their capacity to withstand cold, but also in the fact that both male and female animals grow antlers. Until the twentieth century an indigenous people of northern Scandinavia called the Sami made their living primarily as reindeer herders. These reindeer facts, however, cannot by themselves explain how these unfamiliar animals were drafted into contemporary American Christmas lore.

Santa's Reindeer

The idea that Santa Claus drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer is usually credited to one man's flight of fancy. In 1822 Clement C. Moore (1779-1863), a classics professor at General Theological Seminary, wrote a poem for children entitled "A Visit from St. Nicholas." This poem, officially published in 1844, did much to establish the legend and lore of Santa Claus in the United States (see also Elves and North Pole). In it Moore assigns eight flying reindeer the task of pulling Santa's toy-laden sleigh. Moreover, he gave these animals names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen. Moore encoded his own private joke in these last two names. Donder means "thunder" in Dutch, and Blitzen means "lightning" in German.

How did Moore come up with this unusual reindeer imagery? Certainly St. Nicholas, who might be considered Santa's European predecessor, never resorted to such an unusual mode of conveyance (seealso St. Nicholas's Day). No definitive answer can be given to this question, although researchers have made a number of speculations. One writer points out that the year before Moore wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas," one William Gilley published a poem that depicts "santeclause" driving a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Moore may have read this poem and simply borrowed the idea from this littleknown work. Others have suggested that Moore was inspired by an image from old Norse mythology in which Thor, the thunder god, rides a flying chariot pulled by the magical goats, Gnasher and Cracker. It may also be that Moore paired Santa with the exotic reindeer in order to suggest that he came from a remote land in the far northern reaches of the world.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

In the early twentieth century an ordinary department store worker added a new reindeer to Santa's team. Robert L. May, an employee at Montgomery Ward, wrote a poem entitled "Rudolph the RedNosed Reindeer" in 1939. The store printed the poem and distributed it to children as a sales gimmick.

Written to appeal to children, the poem tells the story of a young reindeer who was rejected by his playmates for being different. The rejected youth, named Rudolph, had a large, shiny, red nose while all the other reindeers had small black noses. One very misty Christmas Eve, however, Santa discovers that the shiny red nose gives off enough light to help him sail safely through the murky night skies. Once the other reindeer realize Rudolph's nose is a valuable asset they befriend the once lonely youngster. Almost two and one-half million copies of the poem were sent home with shoppers in 1939, and more than three and one-half million in 1946, when Montgomery Ward reprinted May's work. The store then released the copyright on the poem back to the author, who published it in a book for children.

In 1949 a friend of May's named Johnny Marks composed a song based on the story told in the poem. In its first year on the market Rudolph fans bought two million copies of the song. Entitled, like the poem, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," it remains a popular, contemporary Christmas tune, which has now been recorded hundreds of times. In the decades following publication of the poem and the song, Rudolph's fame continued to spread. His story has been told in 25 different languages, and has even been made into a network television special. In addition, hundreds of Christmas knickknacks now bear his image.

Further Reading

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Rangifer tarandus), an artiodactyl of the family Cervidae. Males reach a length of 220 cm, a height at the shoulders of 140 cm, and a weight of 220 kg. The females are smaller than the males. In the winter the fur is thick and long, and there is a highly developed undercoat. In the summer the coat is shorter and thinner. The summer coloration is a uniform reddish or grayish brown; the winter pelage is lighter, sometimes almost white. Both sexes have antlers; however, those of the males are larger. The head is small, and there is a covering of hair over the nose. The ears are short and rounded. The reindeer has spreading hooves: the middle hooves are broad and flat, and the lateral ones are long (when the animal is standing, they touch the ground). Thus, the hooves have a comparatively large area of support, which facilitates locomotion in deep snow and mud.

The reindeer is distributed in Europe, in Asia, and in North America (where it is called the caribou). It inhabits polar islands, tundra, and valley and mountain taiga. The reindeer is a polygamous herd animal. In the winter its diet consists principally of lichens (mainly reindeer moss), twigs, and buds of trees and shrubs; in the summer the animal feeds on berries, mushrooms, and the leaves and shoots of herbaceous plants and shrubs. Reindeer make seasonal migrations, traveling hundreds of kilometers in the winter from the tundra to regions in the forest tundra and northern taiga having an abundance of reindeer moss.

Rutting and mating occurs in September and October. In May or June, after a gestation period of about 225 days, the females bear one or, less frequently, two young. The young nurse for four or five months. Sexual maturity is attained in the second year of life. Shortly after rutting, the males shed their horns; new horns develop from April to August. The females shed their horns after giving birth, and development of new ones is completed in September. Molting occurs once a year.

Reindeer are cautious, sensitive animals, with a well-developed sense of smell. They are able to swim across rivers and lakes. Reindeer are commercially valued for their meat and their hides, which are used in the manufacture of fur garments and suede.

The wild reindeer is the ancestor of the domesticated reindeer, which has great significance in the economy of peoples of the Far North. SeeDEER RAISING.


See references under CERVIDAE.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


(vertebrate zoology)
Rangifer tarandus. A migratory ruminant of the deer family (Cervidae) which inhabits the Arctic region and has a circumpolar distribution; characteristically, both sexes have antlers and are brown with yellow-white areas on the neck and chest.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


a large deer, Rangifer tarandus, having large branched antlers in the male and female and inhabiting the arctic regions of Greenland, Europe, and Asia. It also occurs in North America, where it is known as a caribou
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Second, Prudhoe Bay development did disrupt the movements of Central Arctic caribou. (99) Development drove the herd almost entirely out of its preferred calving ground by the time oil began to flow south from Prudhoe Bay.
An arrangement with Arctic Caribou Inn provides accommodations, and trips to dip a toe in the Arctic Ocean at East Dock are included.
State management objectives for the Western Arctic Caribou Herd include maintaining a post calving population of at least 200,000 animals to provide subsistence and recreational hunting opportunities on a sustained yield basis, protecting components of the natural ecosystem upon which the herd depends, perpetuating wild carnivore populations that utilize the caribou herd, and maintaining opportunities to view and engage in the scientific study of the herd.(46) To realize these objectives, the management plan calls for monitoring the age and sex composition of the herd population.(47) It also requires harvest regulation and habitat degradation prevention.(48) Herd management prescriptions include minimizing conflict between caribou and the reindeer industry.(49)
Population dynamics of Alaska's Western Arctic Caribou Herd.
In the north-central interior of Alaska, a proposed road to facilitate mining in the Ambler Mining District would pass through a portion of the Western Arctic caribou herd's winter range (Fig.
Factors limiting productivity of the central Arctic caribou herd of Alaska.
Because of the extreme low growth of vegetation and the patchy appearance of High Arctic caribou ranges, some observers may seriously underestimate forage abundance, leading to speculation that all reductions in population dynamics during the relatively favorable weather years had to be caused by mechanisms operating in a density-dependent manner in response to food limitation.
Home range, social structure, and habitat selection of the Western Arctic caribou herd.
Body composition and nutrient reserves of Arctic caribou. Canadian Journal of Zoology 74:136-146.
Can petroleum development depress the productivity of Arctic caribou? Paper presented at the 2nd International Arctic Ungulate Conference, 13-17 August 1995, Fairbanks, Alaska.
We therefore lacked a complete understanding of the behavioral responses of Arctic caribou to industrial development, the manner in which access to various habitats might be affected, and how changes in habitat use might translate into effects on fecundity and herd growth.
Distribution and productivity of the Central Arctic caribou herd in relation to petroleum development: Case history studies with a nutritional perspective.

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