Meet the Caribou-the North American Reindeer | Trekking Days
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Meet the Caribou-the North American Reindeer

by | The Oracle, Wildlife

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Some say that you learn something new every day. If you like to learn fun animal facts, today you can learn about the North American caribou, the larger and undomesticated version of the reindeer. Let’s find out the southernmost places in North America where you can spot caribou, why Rudolph may be a female, and how you can help North American reindeer to cope with environmental changes.

Caribou vs. Reindeer

First, it is worth knowing that there are few differences between caribou and reindeer, as they both belong to the same specie, rangifer tarandus. Caribou, however, are subspecies of rangifer tarandus that live in North America, while reindeers live in Asia and Europe. European and Asian reindeers can be either domesticated or wild, while caribou are always undomesticated.

Another difference between the two is that reindeers have sharp pointy antlers while caribou have tall, curved antlers. Finally, caribou are usually larger compared to European and Asian reindeers.

If the holiday spirit has taken over you, you may be tempted to plan a vacation at the North Pole and see how Rangifer tarandul (R.t.), also known as reindeer in Eurasia and as caribou in North America, live like. However, if you feel the North Pole is too cold or can’t afford a two-way trip, you may be happy to know that you can see reindeer in southern Canada and, with a lot of luck, in the United States.

You can actually see up to four subspecies of reindeer in North America: R.t. caribou (woodland caribou), R.t. groenlandicus (barren-ground caribou), R.t. granti (Grant’s caribou), and R.t. pearyi (Peary caribou). R.t. caribou in North America is divided by ecotypes- including boreal, migratory, and montane. They can be found in Alaska (U.S.), Idaho (U.S.), Manitova (Canada), Nunavut (Canada), and Northwest Territories (Canada), among others.

The Barren-Ground Caribou

Barren-ground caribou are mostly found in Nunavut (Canada), Northwest Territories (also Canada), and Kitaa (not Canada but Greenland). They make almost half of all caribou that can be found in Canada. A typical male weighs around 330 lb (150 kg) and a typical female weighs around 200 lb (90 kg). The average height is somewhere between 3.5- 4 ft (1.05 m-1.2 m). Their fur is white and grey in the winter but gets brown with a bottom layer of white in the summer. The typical life of a barren-ground caribou consists of eating grasses and lichen (among others) and travel in herds of thousands for as much as 750 miles (1,200 km) per season.

The Grant’s Caribou

A group related to barren-ground caribou (and sometimes included in it) is Grant’s caribou, also known as the porcupine caribou. This herd is particularly famous for migrating over 1,500 miles (2,400 km) each year, from the Porcupine River (Alaska-U.S. and Canada) to the Brooks Range (Alaska) and Yukon (Canada). In fact, the Porcupine herd has the longest land migration route of any land mammal on this planet.

Grant’s caribou are also a herd that has so far managed to handle the challenges brought by human activity. According to CBC Canada, while the number of many caribou subspecies has declined to more than 90 percent, the number of Porcupine has almost doubled in the last 16 years; as of 2017, there are between 202,000 and 235,000 Porcupine caribou. The fact this herd travels in a rather inhabited land between Alaska and Yukon has likely helped them in this regard.

The Peary Caribou

Peary caribou can be found on the island of Nunavut and the Norwest Territories. They are the smallest group of North American caribou. The average length is 5.6 feet (1.7 m) in males and 4.6 feet (1.4. m) in females. Males weigh around 240 lb (110 kg) and females weigh around 130 lb (60 kg). Peary caribou have a white and tick coat in the winter and a short and greyer one in the winter. Just like other caribou, Peary seem to be a lot into grasses, lichen, and mushrooms. They are also particularly found on purple saxifrage- a common plant in the high Arctic and parts of the Rocky Mountains.

A caribou in Jasper National Park

The Woodland Caribou

The woodland caribou is the largest subspecies of the four. Males have an average height of 3.9 feet (1.2 m) and an average weight of 400 lb (180 kg). In females, the average height is 3.5 feet (1.05 m) and the average weight is 300 lb (135 kg). A Woodland caribou can be recognized by their darker fur, which is grey in the winter and brown in the summer. They can be found in most of Canada, except for Nova Scotia, Nunavut, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

Finding A Caribou

If you are unable to spot a caribou visually, you should know that when caribou run, they sound like clicks. In other words, they sound like a lot of photographers taking pictures at the same time. The clicking sound is produced by the tendons slipping over bones in their feet and listening to this should be quite entertaining. While it may sound like North America is full of caribou, this is not the case at all. A long time ago, you could have found caribou as south as New York. Since then, climate change, deforestation, and habitat fragmentation have greatly reduced their numbers. According to NRDC, there are only 3 caribou individuals (!) left in the lower 48 states. The 3 remaining caribou can be found in the Selkirk Mountains (Idaho and Washington). Given that all of these caribou are females, it seems unlikely that this herd could survive without human intervention. For instance, it has been suggested to combine the herd with another one. On the other hand, many other herds have similar problems. For example, a herd in nearby British Columbia (Canada) known as the South Purcells consists of only three females and one male.

Is Rudolph a Female?

While caribou belong to the Cervidae family and are related to deer, elk, moose, and wapiti, they are the only ones from this family where both females and males grow antlers that are replaced on an annual basis. The caribou do not synchronize in terms of antler cycles, as males lose theirs in November while females lose them in the spring. Both get beautiful new antlers each summer.

If you have read the paragraph above might have realized that only females have antlers in December! Hopefully, Rudolph did not have to pretend being a biological male because back in the old days they thought a female won’t do a good job as a flying reindeer. Of course, if Santa did the hiring, this couldn’t have happened!

Rudolph in cartoon version

Conservation Efforts 

As human activities such as mining, timber, and oil and gas exploitation have impacted reindeer’s habitat, they have become exposed to competitors like deer and moose and predators like wolves and mountain lions. The fact about 70 percent of the oil reserves existing in Canada’s Alberta are within caribou habitats doesn’t help.

While the Canadian government has created a recovery plan meant to reserve five million acres (20234.2 km2) of mountainous territory for caribou herds, the valleys below these places include lodging and residential areas.

Other conservation efforts, such as removing predators from caribou’s habitats and relocating pregnant females into artificial environments until their offspring are strong enough have not proven very successful. In fact, it seems that the offspring’s chances of survival in temporal captivity may not be higher than their chance of survival in their natural environment.

Speaking of caribou’s offspring, it is worth mentioning that a baby caribou is called calf. The gestation period of a reindeer lasts about 7.5 months and their offspring can stand after one hour of life and already eat solid food along with milk after one week. On the other hand, they only get their first antlers around the second year of life.

For significantly more information about North American caribou, I recommend reading Project Caribou, a free educational guide that will help you, people from the North Pole, and others know more about North American caribou. This includes information about their origins, a detailed description of each subgroup, and plenty of other data regarding their behaviors, habitat, diet, and interactions with humans. More so, you can even find out about what you can do to help caribou.

If you are interested in getting involved in protecting the North American caribou, you may also want to visit Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Wilderness Committee,, Caribourain Forest, and/or Greenpeace. There are likely several other organizations that seek to protect the caribou. If you want to write to your government to stand up for the Endangered Species Act, you can send them a letter by clicking here.


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