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Reindeer Challenges

Reindeer and caribou face numerous challenges to survive.

By Jerry Murray, DVM
Posted: December 14, 2011, 6 a.m. EST

caribou walking
© Courtesy Jerry Murray DVM
Male caribou can weigh up to 700 pounds.
caribou grazing
© Courtesy Jerry Murray , DVM
Caribou grow antlers every year, even female caribou.

With the upcoming Christmas Eve flight of some very special reindeer out of the North Pole, I thought I would write about some general reindeer information and medicine. Reindeer are the domesticated version of caribou. Fortunately neither reindeer nor caribou are endangered. There are roughly 2 million reindeer and 3 million wild caribou in the world.

Reindeer are members of the deer family. Females, males and even young calves grow antlers each year. This is unique, as no other members of the deer family have females that grow antlers. Males (called bulls) are bigger than females (called cows). Male caribou can weigh as much as 700 pounds.

Caribou and reindeer live in the arctic and subarctic regions of the world and are adapted to the extreme weather in these areas. They have special turbinates in their noses to warm the air they breathe in before it reaches the lungs. They also have special hair that is hollow and traps air, which helps them maintain their body temperature. This is very similar to polar bear fur. Even their hooves have seasonal changes. In the summer their hooves are wider and softer, but in the winter their hooves become harder and shrink in size. This helps the reindeer dig through the snow and ice during the winter to get to food (lichen). Reindeer are generally docile and easy to handle. Plus they are good swimmers.

polar bear walking in snow
© Courtesy Jerry Murray, DVM
Polar bears are just one of the predators of reindeer and caribou.

Reindeer and caribou face a few problems from climate change. As temperatures increase, more ticks are able to survive in reindeer and caribou regions. Ticks can carry several diseases including Lyme disease, which reindeer are starting to be exposed to. Another disease that is starting to infect reindeer herds is brucellosis. This disease can cause abortions and decrease fertility in reindeer, and it can cause undulant fever in humans. Climate change makes it more difficult for calves to survive. In addition to climate problems, they also have to survive predators such as polar bears, brown bears, wolves and eagles that prey on young calves and weaker members of the herd.

See all of Dr. Murray's columns>>

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