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Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) in North America

Reindeer ( Rangifer tarandus ) in North America

without rank: Forehead weapon bearer (Pecora)
Family : Deer (Cervidae)
Subfamily : Deer (Capreolinae)
Tribe : Actual deer
Genre : Rangifer
Type : Ren
Scientific name of the  tribe
Brookes , 1828
Scientific name of the  genus
CH Smith , 1827
Scientific name of the  species
Rangifer tarandus
( Linnaeus , 1758)
Recent distribution of Rangifer tarandus
  • caribou
  • Ren, of course
  • Ren introduced
  • North American reindeer - caribou
    Reindeer near the Kebnekaise in Lapland, Sweden

    The Ren (pronounced [ʀeːn] and [rɛn], technical language plurality Rener ) or reindeer ( Rangifer tarandus ), formerly racing animal is a mammalian species from the family of deer (Cervidae). It lives circumpolar in the summer in the tundras and in the winter in the taiga of northern Eurasia and North America as well as on Greenland and other arctic islands. It is the only species of deer that has been domesticated .

    The North American representatives of the reindeer are known as caribou (written in German Karibu ), a word from the language of the indigenous people of the Mi'kmaq .


    Skull ( Museum Wiesbaden Collection )

    The size varies with the area of ​​distribution. The head body length can be 120 to 220 centimeters, the shoulder height 90 to 140 centimeters, the weight 60 to 300 kilograms. The fur is dense and long, dark gray-brown or, especially in domesticated animals, light; in winter it is generally lighter than in summer. The "Peary caribou" that live on Canada's high Arctic islands , especially on Ellesmere Island , have an almost pure white fur all year round. The coloring serves as a camouflage against predators; the dense undercoat protects against the cold in the arctic climate.

    The antlers are rod-shaped and widely branched; only the deepest rung forms a small widening at the end, also known as a “snow shovel”, as it was previously assumed that the reindeer cleared the snow with it. The shape of the antlers is irregular, asymmetrical and different for each animal. The female is the only deer species with antlers. That of the male is 50 to 130 centimeters long, compared to only 20 to 50 centimeters in the female. Males shed their antlers in autumn, females only in spring. Shedding does not usually take place on both sides at the same time, so that the reindeer temporarily carries an antler pole.

    The hooves of the reindeer are wide and can be spread wide thanks to a tension skin. Long dew claws are also formed. This enables the animals to step safely in the often stony or muddy terrain.


    Reindeer are some of the most northern large mammals. They inhabit large parts of northern North America and Eurasia. Reindeer are even found on high Arctic islands such as Svalbard , Ellesmere Island and Greenland . In order to avoid the arctic winter, the reindeer herds undertake long migrations where possible, some up to 5000 kilometers - the longest regular migration of land mammals ever.

    On the European mainland there is only a small population of wild reindeer in the Norwegian Hardangervidda . The large herds of reindeer in Lapland and north - eastern Russia are exclusively (slightly) domesticated , "semi-wild" reindeer, for example under the care of the Sami .

    In northern Canada, the range of reindeer (called caribou) extends further south, i.e. into the boreal zone . The reindeer was most widespread in the last glacial period ; at that time it penetrated as far as the Pyrenees and today's Mexican northern border . With the warming at the end of the last glacial period, the habitat began to shift northwards, with the reindeer staying in more temperate zones for a long time. Probably humans were partly responsible for the disappearance of the animals from the temperate zones; however, the stocks were already on the decline.

    The reindeer became extinct in the British Isles around 10,000 years ago. In 1952, the Same Mikel Utsi released 29 animals in the Scottish Cairngorms mountain range ; today about 130 reindeer live there. A herd of around 80 animals live on the grounds of the Glenlivet distillery.

    The reindeer was introduced to the Kerguelen as a neozoon . This was also the case in South Georgia , where the species was successfully exterminated in 2014 by Norwegian snipers supported by the South Georgian administration.

    Way of life

    Reindeer are herd animals. They come together for the seasonal migrations and can include several 100,000 animals in certain areas; a herd of 500,000 animals is known from Alaska . The world's largest reindeer herd was at times the George River herd in eastern Canada, which has now shrunk from around 900,000 animals (1980s) to 70,000 (2011). After the migrations, the herds break up into smaller groups of ten to a hundred animals. These groups, with a hierarchy that is based on the size of the antlers, usually consist of either only males or only females. Occasionally the hierarchy is decided through ritualized battles.

    At the time of mating in October, males attempt to gather a harem around themselves. They mate with as many females as possible. After a gestation period of about 230 days, the female gives birth to a single cub. The birth takes place in May or June. Unlike most deer calves, the young animal is not spotted and is independent shortly after birth. It can run like this after an hour. Provided that it stays dry, the young are protected from the cold by their fur made of air-filled hair. In cold, wet weather, the mortality of the calves is high, although reindeer calves can accelerate their heat generation by five times and thus have extraordinary thermoregulatory abilities. The animals become sexually mature after two years. On average, they live to be around 12 to 15 years old, and occasionally more than 20 years.

    Reindeer are primarily grazers ; in the summer they eat almost any vegetable diet they can find. In winter they are mainly restricted to reindeer lichens , mosses and mushrooms due to snow and ice .

    The reindeer's natural enemies are wolves , wolverines , lynxes and bears . However, healthy animals know how to evade these enemies through their speed; so the predators usually only fall victim to sick and weakened reindeer. The biggest plague are indoor and outdoor parasites , especially the myriads of arctic mosquitoes . In addition, the industrial development of their pastureland also has an impact on their survival, as suggested by the example of the George River herd.

    People and reindeer

    Rener can already be found on cave drawings from the Stone Age . Were you the Neanderthals a coveted prey . To this day, reindeer are kept and hunted in many parts of the world because their lean game and fur are appreciated. In the regions where big game, fiber plants and building materials are scarce or lacking, people have used almost every part of the reindeer's body: the skin for furs and leather, the blood as a medicine (“Saina tjalem”), antlers and bones for tool manufacture.

    The beginning of the utilization of the reindeer herds for the natural pastoral economy ( pastoralism # reindeer pastoralism ) dates back 5000 years and first took place in Siberia.

    Above all, the traditional way of life of many indigenous peoples of the Eurasian north is characterized by living together with reindeer. For the Nenets in Siberia, for example, they are an important part of their life and part of their livelihood: "The reindeer is our food, our warmth and our means of transport." This also applies to a small part of the northern European Sami.

    Reindeer sleigh in Russia around 1900
    Reindeer in Lapland

    Domestication and reindeer farming

    It is unknown which people first domesticated reindeer. The use of the reindeer spread around 1000 BC. From Siberia to Scandinavia . The model of this latest domestication of a large mammal was evidently provided by cattle farmers from peasant or cattle-breeding cultures who had advanced northwards. In Northern Europe, the Sami were successful in this area. Until the 17th century, reindeer were mainly used as pack animals and draft animals. The subsequent expansion of domestication to entire herds only took place through the compulsion to pay higher taxes to the colonial rulers. Reindeer farming is still practiced in Lapland , northern Russia and large parts of Siberia (in many cases semi-nomadic , very rarely fully nomadic ). In Norway and Sweden it is a Sami privilege, in Finland it is mainly practiced by Finns. The herds roam freely, the people follow them. The reindeer are rounded up at set times to mark the calves or slaughter selected animals. Today, large herds are partly rounded up by helicopters and / or snowmobiles.

    As reindeer endure extremely low temperatures, domesticated European reindeer were introduced to Greenland, Alaska and Canada in the 20th century, where the native peoples previously only hunted wild caribou and never domesticated it themselves. In Alaska, the attempt failed because the Eskimos retained their hunting mentality. Reindeer, originally by whalers , were also introduced on some sub-Antarctic islands as a source of fresh meat that was always available. After the reindeer were removed from South Georgia in 2013 and 2014 because the browsing damage to the island's vegetation was too great, the southernmost and now only reindeer population in the southern hemisphere is now on the Kerguelen .

    However, they do not tolerate higher temperatures well. In the 2010s, the ice fields on summer pastures of Mongolian reindeer herders have declined more than before, so that the reindeer, who are already stressed by higher temperatures, even lack the opportunity to cool off. In addition, blood-sucking insects thrive better in the higher temperatures and are more difficult for reindeer, which are already weakened by heat stress. The tradition of reindeer herding nomads in Mongolia is endangered by the rise in temperature. The biggest problem for the future of the reindeer is climate change, however, due to the increasing frequency of rainfalls in winter: When the water on the snowpack freezes, the reindeer can no longer get their food and have to starve. In some cases, this has already led to the starvation of hundreds of animals.

    Reindeer are not shy; in northern Finland or Sweden they often walk on the country roads and do not leave them when a car comes. You can therefore drive up to about one to two meters without the animals fleeing. On foot, however, a distance of less than five to ten meters is only possible for animals that humans are used to.


    Peary caribou.
    Svalbard reindeer feeding.

    In various parts of the world the reindeer has become rare due to hunting. Today there are around 4 million wild and 3 million domesticated reindeer worldwide. The species is therefore not considered endangered. Three quarters of the wild reindeer live in North America, and more than three quarters of the domesticated reindeer in Siberia.

    A distinction is made between ten to twenty subspecies of the reindeer, depending on the doctrine. Traditionally, a distinction is made between two main forms, on the one hand the tundra reindeer and on the other hand the so-called forest reindeer. Tundra reindeer are divided into three small, high-arctic island forms, which are not all closely related, as well as three mainland forms, some of which also occur on islands. Another island form, the extinct Queen Charlotte caribou , does not appear to represent a subspecies of its own according to genetic evidence, but was close to the forms of mainland Canada. The Eurasian forest reindeer are traditionally divided into three forms.

    Tundra animals

    Forest reindeer

    European wood reindeer in the Prague Zoo
    Perforated rod from the Kesslerloch from the Upper Palaeolithic with a searching reindeer (copy from the National Museum Zurich )

    The subspecies differ in fur color and size. For example, the Canadian forest caribou is dark brown, the European reindeer more gray-brown. The smallest reindeer are the island-dwelling subspecies. The Spitzbergen reindeer is on average 15 percent smaller than the European reindeer.


    The Sámi call a male reindeer sarves , a castrated male hierke , and a female vaia . These terms were adopted all over the world where reindeer are kept as pets today. However, the reindeer-keeping peoples of Siberia use their own names in their respective languages. The English name is "reindeer". The Russian name северный олень literally means "northern deer".

    As plural forms of Ren are possible "Rens", "Rene" and "Rener". In technical terms, only the form "Rener" is used.

    The Nordic term "Ren" ( Swedish. Ren , Norw. Pure ) has been used in the German language since the 16th century .


    • Ronald M. Nowak: Walker's Mammals of the World . 6th edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1999, ISBN 0-8018-5789-9 (English).
    • Ingrid Hemmer : Development and structure of the reindeer industry in Finnmark and Troms (Northern Norway) . Bamberg 1985. ISSN  0179-1672 (updated and slightly shortened version of the phil. Diss., Bamberg 1984)
    • Tom Walker: Caribou. Wanderer of the tundra . Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company, Portland 2000. ISBN 1-55868-524-3
    • John Sandlos: Caribou . In this: Hunters at the Margin. Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories . UBC Press 2007, pp. 139-230.
    • Jürg Endres: reindeer herder. Hunter. Poacher? Practice, change and vulnerability among the Dukha and Tozhu in the Mongolian-Russian border area . Franz Steiner, Stuttgart 2015 ISBN 978-3-515-11140-9
    • Michael H. Weiler: Caribou hunting and fur trade: cultural change among the Naskapi in northern Québec / Labrador . Mundus, Bonn 1986. At the same time: University of Bonn , Master's thesis 1982
    • Michael H. Weiler: Modernization of caribou hunting among the Naskapi in North Québec, Canada. Notorf 1986.


    • Rangifer. English-language specialist magazine for reindeer biology and herding. Harstad 1.1981ff (annually) ISSN  0333-256X

    Web links

    Wiktionary: Ren  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
    Commons : Ren ( Rangifer tarandus )  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

    Individual evidence

    1. Hans-Peter Uerpmann: Problems of the Neolithization of the Mediterranean. Original: University of Michigan, new edition, Reichert [in Komm.], 1979, ISBN 9783882260137 . P. 18.
    2. Heiner Kubny: Reindeer on South Georgia are finally history . In: PolarNEWS . ( [accessed on March 19, 2017]).
    3. Article on the George River Herd in English
    4. Innu report on decline in reindeer .
    5. ^ Karl Otto Sauerbeck: The medicine in Karl May's novels. In: Würzburg medical history reports. 24, 2005, pp. 348–362, here: p. 357 ( Medicine of the Lappen )
    6. Bryan Gordon: Rangifer and man: An ancient relationship. Rangifer Special Issue 14 (The Ninth North American Caribou Workshop), 2001, pp. 15-28.
    7. Press release on 'People of the Reindeer' including photo gallery .
    8. Diemut Klärner: Climate Change in Mongolia: Overheated Reindeer. In: January 2, 2020, accessed January 11, 2020 .
    9. Climate change in the Arctic is starving reindeer . In:, December 17, 2019, accessed on January 12, 2020.
    10. Martin Hall Larsen: Fant mer enn 200 døde pure: - Skyldes klimaendringer . In:, July 27, 2019, accessed on January 12, 2020.
    11. Peter Gravlund, Morten Meldgaard, Svante Pääbo and Peter Arctander: Polyphyletic Origin of the Small-Bodied, High-Arctic Subspecies of Tundra Reindeer ( Rangifer tarandus ). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 10 (2), 1998, pp. 151-159. on-line
    12. SA Byun, BF Koop, and TE Reimchen: Evolution of the Dawson caribou ( Rangifer tarandus dawsoni ) . Canadian Journal of Zoology 80 (5), 2002, pp. 956–960 doi: 10.1139 / z02-062 ( PDF )
    13. ^ Leonid Baskin, Kjell Danell: Ecology of Ungulates: A Handbook of Species in Eastern Europe and Northern and Central Asia. Springer, Berlin; Edition: 1 (February 2008). ISBN 3-540-43804-1
    14. Jump up ↑ SJ Kutz, BT Elkin, D. Panayi, and JP Dubey: Prevalence of Toxoplasma gondii Antibodies in Barren-Ground Caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) From the Canadian Arctic . Journal of Parasitology 87 (2), 2001, pp. 439-442. on-line
    This article was added to the list of excellent articles on September 30, 2006 in this version .