Reindeer – the northernmost deer on the planet | Polarjournal
Reindeer or caribou inhabit only the northern hemisphere. They live circumpolar in summer in the tundra and in winter in the taiga. Photo: Stefan Leimer

With the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago, first human settlements were established in Norway. The retreat of the up to 3,000 m thick ice sheet, which had held Scandinavia in its grip until then, opened the route for the first gatherers and hunters, who followed the reindeer herds north along the coast.

Hjemmeluft Bay (German: Robbenbucht) near the present-day town of Alta became a significant gathering place for Stone Age people. Here, between 7,000 and 2,000 B.C., more engravings were chiseled into the rock than anywhere else in northern Europe. Unfortunately, apart from their works of art, no record exists of the people who lived here at that time. However, the depictions of about 6,000 figures give a multifaceted insight into their everyday life and show a society that lived from gathering, hunting and fishing.

On the one hand, the images depict everyday situations; on the other hand, depending on the interpretation, they allow conclusions to be drawn about the spiritual world of thought of the people who lived here at that time. The pictures show animals such as moose, bears and various birds. But also fish or fishing nets and boats as well as other hunting methods are depicted. And people in their various activities. Remarkably often depicted are reindeer, which were a valuable hunting prey at that time. The reindeer provided the people with much of what they needed to survive in this cold region. Meat and fat for food, tendons and the fur for clothing. Tools were carved from the bones or they were cracked open to get at the nutritious marrow. From reindeer antlers, hunters made spearheads and harpoons.

Today, reindeer live in the northernmost regions of Asia, Europe and North America (known there as caribou), where they are found in the tundra and taiga. However, on our trip through Finnmark at the end of August, we encountered them mainly in the fjells. I.e. in the mountains and plateaus above the timberline, which here – depending on latitude – already starts at 180 m.a.s.l.. While in Siberia and North America reindeer and caribou still live according to their natural rhythm, the reindeer in Scandinavia are practically all domesticated farm animals of the Sami.

In Scandinavia, reindeer are almost exclusively farm animals of the Sami. Photo: Stefan Leimer

Norway is one of the last countries in Europe where natural populations of reindeer still exist. The country is internationally responsible for the conservation of wild reindeer, because about 90% of the population of all wild tundra reindeer live in Norway. In the 18th and 19th centuries, so many animals were tamed that there were almost no wild ones left. Therefore, between 1902 and 1906, wild reindeer were placed under protection. This led to a short-term recovery of the population, but did not secure it in the long run. In 1920, the number of animals was estimated at 2,700. In the 1930s, Norway introduced a strict quota system for hunting. Today there are again about 35,000 wild animals, most of which are found in southern Norway. Hardangervidda, an 8,000km2 plateau is Norway’s largest national park and known for being home to the last wild reindeer.

It is now believed that reindeer were first domesticated in eastern Russia 3000-1000 years ago, making reindeer one of the last wild animals to be domesticated by humans.

Why reindeer were domesticated relatively late is speculation. Scientists believe that this may be related to the fundamentally docile nature of reindeer. Wild adult reindeer readily allow themselves to be milked and also like to stay close to human settlements. In the small fishing village of Gamvik on the Barents Sea, reindeer ran in front of our car in the middle of the village. Reindeer, on the other hand, are independent and do not need to be housed and fed by humans.

Photo: Stefan Leimer

This does not mean that they are trusting. My first attempts to take photos in nature failed miserably. The animals took off long before I was within acceptable photo distance. Only when I took the wind direction into account and moved very slowly, the reindeer let me get a little closer to them. When I laid down on the ground, the animals became really curious and came closer and closer.

Reindeer are related to our red deer. Reindeer females, however, also wear antlers, which they shed in the spring or – in some subpopulations – even in the summer. In winter, when pregnant, they need their antlers to defend the meager feeding areas from other females and thus secure enough food for themselves and their unborn calf. Male reindeer, on the other hand, shed their antlers in fall. The reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh and are never depicted without antlers are consequently all females.

The antlers are somewhat flattened, have a light color, and are often strikingly asymmetrical in construction. This is how the reindeer antlers differ from the antlers of all other deer species. In addition, they are larger than average antlers in relation to the size of the animals.

Photo: Stefan Leimer

The main food of reindeer in winter is lichens on the ground and trees, supplemented by dry grass and shrubs. In summer, reindeer feed on herbs, grass, dwarf shrubs, and sometimes lichens. One of these lichens is known as “reindeer lichen” which grows in boreal coniferous forests, tundra, and alpine dwarf shrub heaths, and is an important food source for reindeer in northern Europe. Due to overgrazing, however, it is said to have become rare in places. Reindeer lichen is also edible for humans and was processed into bread flour in times of need.

Reindeer are well adapted to life in extremely cold regions. Photo: Stefan Leimer

Reindeer have developed adaptations during evolution that allow them to survive in extremely cold regions.

Research shows that reindeer owe the red coloration of their olfactory organs to the extreme concentration of veins that supply their nose with warm blood, helping to regulate body temperature in the harsh environment. When reindeer overheat – for example, from running for long periods of time – they can only release the excess heat through their nose and legs. The rest of their body is too well insulated by the thick fur.

In terms of energy efficiency, reindeer outperform all other land creatures. The winter fur of the animals is with about 700 hairs/cm² about three times as dense as in other deer species. The hollow fur hairs store the air, which is thus warmed up and insulates the animals perfectly. During winter, the hairs on the face grow so long that they cover the lips and thus protect the muzzles when they search for food in the snow.

However, the dense fur also has disadvantages once the temperatures vary. Since the reindeer then quickly become too warm, they increase their breathing frequency from seven to up to 250 breaths per minute. This causes the passing air to evaporate, cooling the blood in the nose that is pumped into the body to regulate the temperature.
It is striking that reindeer click when they walk. These characteristic sounds are made by tendons that stretch over bony prominences in the foot. Some scientists believe that these clicking sounds help the animals to orient themselves during snowstorms in order to stay together as a herd.

In winter, they use their hooves and noses to scrape free the sparse food. Photo: Stefan Leimer

The calves are born within a very short period of time in the spring. A newborn reindeer calf weighs between five and nine kilograms and can stand on its own hooves just a few minutes after birth. They have to keep up with the herd from the very beginning. Thanks to the nutritious mother’s milk, with 20% fat content one of the fattiest milk of land-living mammals, they grow very fast. For comparison, the milk of cows contains about 3-4% fat. Calves are weaned after only one month. In the barren taiga and tundra they have no choice but to feed on grasses, lichens, mushrooms, leaves and bark.

Now, in early October, the days are rapidly becoming shorter. Winter is approaching and the first snow can fall any time. While the change from polar day to polar night causes problems for us humans, reindeer lead a life independent of light. Since it is not possible for them to adjust their life rhythm to the day-night rhythm during the dark period, they distribute sleeping and eating over 24 hours randomly.

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