They are called “thunder” and “lightning” or „Eclair“ and „Tonnere“ and look impishly around the corner ... we are talking about reindeer. Especially in the Anglo-Saxon culture, reindeers are inextricably linked to Christmas. They pull the sleigh of Santa Claus which leaves the North Pole on Christmas Eve to spread the gifts..

I have experienced them very close a few times and love them like other people like horses, dogs or cats. But what else do we actually know about this deer species from the far north? Here are some amazing facts:

Reindeers send click sounds when walking, change their eye color when necessary, have an underfloor heating system and warm their breathing air. The „refrigeration specialists“ can do much more than bringing Christmas gifts:

  • The reindeer lives in the tundra and in the taiga in northern Eurasia, North America, Greenland and other Arctic islands. It can live up to 20 years. Its body-length is approx. two meters, its shoulder height varies from 90 to 125 centimeters and males can reach a weight of up to 250 kilograms.
  • Reindeer and caribou belong to the same species (rangifer tarandus). European representatives are called reindeer, in North America they are called caribou. Usually you speak of reindeer when they are considered domesticated animals.
  • In Russia and Lapland, our four-legged friends live in semi-domesticated herds. The Sami (formerly known as Lappen) use fur, tendons, meat and milk (approx. 20 percent fat). Caribous were never domesticated, but indigenous peoples followed the herds for centuries as they provided them with everything they needed to survive.

  • Reindeer are the only type of deer in which the females also wear antlers. They need it to defend the sparse feeding places during pregnancy in winter respectively to secure enough food for themselve and the calf. Male reindeer shed their antlers in autumn or early winter, while female reindeer do so only in spring or early summer. If it gets very cold (under -15 degree centigrate) also the antlers get covered with  some fluffy fur. The reindeer of American Santa Claus are never depicted without antlers and are therefore female. The famous “Rudolph” should therefore be called „Rudolphine“.
  • Another uniqueness is the annual migration/ drift of the sometimes huge herds (up to 160,000 animals) over up to 2,000 kilometers. If they are in trouble, they can run up to 70 kilometers per hour. By the way, reindeer can also swim several kilometers.
  •  Thanks to their fur that they do not freeze or drown. Air deposits ensure good insulation/ isolation and provide buoyancy. Otherwise, reindeer are perfectly adapted to their habitat: the hooves are large and can be spread wide so that the animals do not sink into the snow. Well-trained claws and sharp edges give additional support. In summer, the bales become softer so that the reindeer do not slip on swampy ground. The reindeer nose has a greatly enlarged surface area in the nostrils, which preheats the inhaled air before it reaches the lungs. So there is defenitely no red nose.

  • There is also a kind of “hay” in the hooves as insulation pad.
  • Reindeer may even change their eye color if necessary. In summer, when it is almost always bright and has a lot of light in the far north, the eyes are golden or sometimes appear light blue; in the dark winter they are of dark blue/ brown color. In this way, the light is reflected differently and the view better structured in order to discover possible enemies faster.
  • When walking, reindeer produce typical click sounds. These come from tendons that stretch over bone protrusions in the foot. What the clicks are good for, has not been clearly researched yet. Some scientists suspect that the sounds may help to keep the herd together in blizzards, fog, or darkness. African Elan antelopes produce similar clicks with their knees, which serve to determine the hierarchical structure in the social organization. Dominant and heavier animals click louder.
  • Reindeer feed mainly on lichen and moss (it is said that they contain a substance that prevents the blood from freezing or cooling), which they scrape out of the snow with their sharp-edged hooves, but occasionally they also eat grass and other plants. Their favorite dish, however, remians reindeer lichen, of which an adult animal needs around two kilograms a day. Their excrements are comparatively small round bullets.

You don’t necessarily have to fly to Northern Europe to experience the animals in the great outdoors, there is also a small private herd in the Vosges. Here you may walk freely through a separate piece of forest below the Col de la Schlucht. The “Ferme aux Rennes” (belongs to the beautifully situated „Auberge Schantzwasen“) can be visited in summer and winter.

If the animals want to get closer to the humans, they do so; otherwise they simply make their way and ignore you . As with any living creature, you may observe the curious and shy, quarrelsome or apparently always hungry specimens.

If they eat out of your hand, they do it so skillfully that you don’t feel  their lips or even a wet tongue.

As I said, I like these „furry fellows“ and admire the reindeer nomads, who – partly with modern techniques – but as of today still consciously subscribe to this pastoral culture and cultivate a sustainable approach. The herd owners are not poor people, because a fully grown reindeer is worth at least EUR 250. Reindeer meat tastes intense of game which might not be everybody‘s taste.  However, should you ever have the opportunity, … such a „reindeer burger“ or the dried ham has something special.

„Allez les rennes“…


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