INTRO: Reindeer might be Santa's helpers at the North Pole, but there are lots of other reindeer that live a blue-collar existence—helping out people living in the Arctic. Doug Schneider has more in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio.
STORY: People were working with reindeer long before that famous story about them flying around the world each Christmas helping Santa Claus deliver presents. Reindeer are really a smaller, rounder cousin of the caribou that were domesticated thousands of years ago in Siberia and Scandinavia. Ever since then, they've been used for food, clothing and even transportation throughout the Arctic.
In Alaska, about 20,000 reindeer roam the vast, treeless tundra. Most live on the Seward Peninsula, in the northwest part of the state. The reindeer were first brought to Alaska in the mid-1800s to provide food for commercial whalers and later for local Eskimos. Today, Native herders manage reindeer much like free-range cattle.
Greg Finstad directs the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology. Finstad says modern reindeer look wild, with their thick fur coats that are designed to keep them warm during Alaska's bitter-cold winters. But he says centuries of selective breeding have produced a friendly beast.
FINSTAD: "I think what people find surprising about these animals is that they look very exotic. They look like a wild animal. They have antlers, and a hair coat. They do not look like a domestic animal. But if you get close to them, they'll act like a domestic animal. They'll come right up to you. They'll nuzzle your pockets. They'll be very curious. I think that's what impresses people the most. It's this very exotic, wild-looking animal that you expect to be out on the tundra. But then it behaves very much like your dog."
Reindeer, and of course their close cousins, the caribou, are the only members of the deer family in which both males and females grow antlers. Finstad says females use theirs to protect hard-earned sources of food. They dig holes in the snow to find lichen, and then they use their antlers to guard this valuable meal for themselves and for their calves. Those sharp points are also useful to fend off hungry predators like bears and wolves. Finstad says male reindeer, called bulls, use their antlers to impress females and to ward off rival males.
FINSTAD: "Male reindeer have antlers primarily for the rut. They're a display organ. They'll show off their antlers to other males, telling them, you know, I'm the meanest, baddest reindeer out here. I have a particular harem, you just stay away. And if that doesn't work they'll lock antlers and fight and push each other around."
While no-holds-barred fights are rare, Finstad says watching a pair of 300-pound reindeer battle for dominance is an unforgettable sight.
FINSTAD: "It is very impressive to see two large reindeer bulls lock antlers. During most of the year they are a little bit wary of people and other dangers. But during the rut the only concern they have is keeping their harem together and keeping other bulls away. To see two bulls locked up in a fight is impressive. They're snorting and pushing and you can see the whites of their eyes. They dig the ground up, there's a lot of noise and there's a lot of blood flying."
These tough guys usually lose their antlers before Christmas time. The gals, however, keep their antlers until spring. That probably means that Rudolph, Donner, Blitzen—and the rest of Santa's reindeer—are all female.
With help this week from John Karl at Earthwatch Radio, this is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. I'm Doug Schneider.
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Thanks to the following individual for help preparing this script:
Greg Finstad, Program Manager
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The shortcut to our ASJ news home page is www.asjnews.org.
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