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Caribou --Photographer: USGS
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The Real Lives of Wild Reindeer
If reindeer had red, glowing noses, they'd probably be a lot easier to study in the wild.

Reindeer, of course, is another common name for caribou (Rangifer tarandus) a large, cold-adapted, herding herbivore related to deer, elk and moose.

To learn more about the biology behind these arctic antler-bearers, we only have to turn to our colleagues at the USGS Alaska Science Center, who conduct a wide variety of earth science and ecological science surveys throughout our northernmost state.

Dr. Layne Adams of the Alaska Science Center --Photographer: USGSLayne Adams is a wildlife biologist at the Alaska Science Center, and he sat down earlier today with USGS writer Catherine Puckett and the Washington Post newsroom for an online chat and a Q&A about reindeer biology:

Here are some excerpts from the Q&A:

Where do reindeer come from?

Adams: There are domestic reindeer in Alaska and Canada, but they actually are descendants of domestic Eurasian reindeer that were brought to Alaska in the late 1800s.

Caribou and reindeer are part of the deer family -- related to deer, moose, and elk. But caribou are the only species where males and females both grow antlers. Females and young males have antlers that are similar in size, but older males (more than 2 or 3 years old) have antlers that are much larger.

Caribou and reindeer have been around for over a half-million years, originating in the early Pleistocene. Their ancestors lived at the same time as now-extinct woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats.

How do they thrive in such cold temperatures?

Adams: Caribou are well adapted to living in cold regions and thrive in areas where winter temperatures can reach 70 or 80 degrees below zero.

Caribou have a very dense haircoat, made up of wooly underfur and hollow guardhair, over their entire body (except the very tip of their nose) that provides superior insulation.

They have relatively large, wide hooves for walking and digging through snow.

Caribou --Photographer: USGS

Is climate change affecting caribou?

Adams: We know, from our studies, that weather may be the most important factor affecting the yearly cycles of large hoofed mammals (such as caribou, moose, and muskox) and their predators.

However, the longer-term effects of climate change are much more complex.

Unlike polar bears, which are highly dependent on sea ice that is declining due to warming temperatures, caribou are likely influenced by a wide variety of factors that will be affected by a warming climate, and some effects will be positive and some negative.

For example, with a warming climate, we expect the growing season to be longer and provide caribou with green, nutritious forage earlier and for a longer period of time for a positive effect.

However, we have done research that indicates that with increasing temperatures we can expect more fires on boreal forest winter ranges for caribou that will likely result in reduced availability of lichen, their primary winter forage, which tends to not grow back for about 70 to 80 years after a fire.

The overall effect of a warming climate on Alaska’s caribou will be dependent on how these and many other climate-related effects interact and that is very difficult to predict.

Read more about reindeer biology and USGS research here.

-- Ben Young Landis

Interview excerpts courtesy of Catherine Puckett/USGS. Reindeer photos and Layne Adams photo credits: USGS.

Caribou --Photographer: USGS

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