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6 Types of Reindeer: Species, Facts and Photos

Reindeer often accompany holiday imagery. Even though they have a circumpolar distribution, different types of reindeer inhabit various environments, from the harsh Arctic chill to sheltered woodland areas. 

These deers live in some of the Earth's most challenging ecosystems, and we should appreciate them beyond being seasonal symbols. Read on to learn more about their taxonomic classification, diets, adaptations, etc.

Reindeer Classification

Reindeer are a species of deer found across Arctic and subarctic areas. They are known for their resilience and inhabit tundras and forests in Northern Europe, Siberia, and North America. Interestingly, it's the only deer species where males and females sport antlers.

Belonging to the deer family Cervidae, reindeers, or caribous, have significant variance. Traditionally, we've identified one overarching species, Rangifer tarandus. However, the classification is more complicated.

The American Society of Mammalogists recognizes 14 subspecies - seven from Eurasia and seven from North America. However, genetic studies suggest further distinctions. Harding's research proposes six unique species of reindeer1, shifting our understanding of their taxonomy.

Related Read: Deer Facts.

6 Types of Reindeer

1. Tundra Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Tundra Reindeer
Photo by Ryan Hodnett on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Tundra Reindeer, or the Eurasian Tundra Reindeer, lives in the boreal forest of Scandinavia and northern Russia. It is the largest reindeer subspecies and has a thick dual-layered coat that changes color with the seasons. 

In summer, the coat is light brown; in winter, it turns almost white, providing perfect camouflage against the snow. Thanks to its thick coat, the Tundra reindeer can survive regions where temperatures can drop to a frigid minus fifty degrees Celsius.

Unlike most deer species, both male and female Tundra reindeer have antlers. The males have more intricate antlers, showing strength and dominance during the mating season. Once the season ends, they shed these antlers. 

Meanwhile, female reindeer keep their less ornate antlers until after they have given birth. The reindeer calf drinks its mother’s milk after birth and begins eating solid food after a week. Their antlers protect their newborns against potential threats.

2. Forest Reindeer (Rangifer fennicus)

Forest Reindeer
Photo by Urpo Helenius on Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Forest Reindeer, or Eurasian Forest Reindeer, live in the dense evergreen forests of Finland and Western Russia. Unlike other sociable reindeer species, this species prefers solitude and blends in well with the forest backdrop, thanks to its distinct grey-brown-white coat. 

The Forest Reindeer eats lichen, leaves, twigs, and bark, especially during winter. This unusual diet is a result of centuries of adaptation.

Moreover, their broad and rugged hooves enable them to navigate the uneven terrain of the forest and scrape away snow to access their food.

However, human encroachment and climate change have rapidly lost their habitat, jeopardizing the Forest reindeer's existence.

3. Svalbard Reindeer (Rangifer platyrhynchus)

Svalbard Reindeer
Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The smallest reindeer, called the Svalbard Reindeer, lives in Svalbard, Norway. Their short legs and thick fur help them survive in one of the world's harshest environments. 

Moreover, they do not migrate, staying in Svalbard throughout the year, mainly eating grasses, sedges, and mosses. 

The Svalbard reindeer population also coexists with a limited number of natural predators, such as polar bears and Arctic foxes. Moreover, without human interference, their population has remained stable.

4. Arctic Caribou (Rangifer arcticus)

Arctic Caribou
Photo by National Park Service, Alaska Region on Flickr (Public Domain).

The Arctic Caribou has adapted to survive in North America's Arctic regions. Its dense double-layered coat shields it against the cold and provides natural insulation. 

The caribou's large hooves help it uncover vegetation buried beneath the snow, providing a wintertime food source of lichens and mosses. During summer, the caribou's diet diversifies to include leaves, flowers, and herbs.

During the rutting season in autumn, the bulls engage in head-to-head battles to win the favor of potential mates. After a gestation period of approximately 230 days, the cows give birth to calves in the spring.

5. Greenland Caribou (Rangifer groenlandicus)

The Greenland Caribou, or the Barren-ground Caribou, lives in the Arctic regions of Greenland. The males can weigh up to 220 kilograms, while females generally weigh around 110. 

Moreover, their brown fur matches the tundra's earthy tones during summer. On the other hand, during winter, their coats change to a white color that blends seamlessly with the snow and ice.

Their crescent-shaped, concave hooves help the caribou dig up lichens and other vegetation, their primary food source when buried under snow. During winter, these animals survive on a diet of reindeer moss. 

The Greenland Caribou migrates in herds that can number thousands. These reindeer herds provide safety in numbers, keeping predators like wolves, polar bears, and golden eagles at bay. 

However, climate change and increasing human activity in their Arctic habitat pose the biggest threat to these creatures.

6. Woodland Caribou (Rangifer caribou)

Woodland Caribou
Photo by Steve Forrest on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Woodland Caribou inhabits North America's pine-rich boreal forests and chilly subarctic zones. They are introverts who form small, quiet groups. While male and female caribou form antlers, males have larger and more intricate ones. 

Moreover, their diet is highly dependent on the season. During winter, they primarily feed on lichen; in summer, they eat fresh leaves, crunchy twigs, and juicy mushrooms. 

Their large crescent-shaped hooves help them dig through snow to find food and firmly grip slippery surfaces. Equipped with these, they undertake epic journeys spanning hundreds of kilometers during migration.

Conclusion

Reindeer inhabit various ecosystems, such as the tundra and boreal forests, and possess unique survival skills. However, reindeer populations face climate change, habitat loss, and overhunting. 

Protecting reindeer is essential to safeguarding the health of our planet's biodiversity, which is vital to the well-being of every organism in it. Let us protect reindeer to help maintain the planet's ecological balance.

Reindeer FAQs

1. What is the difference between reindeer and caribous?

They are called reindeer in Europe; in North America, wild reindeer are caribou, and domesticated reindeer are reindeer.

2. Do all reindeer have antlers?

Reindeers are the only living deer species where male and female reindeer grow antlers.

3. Are reindeer endangered?

Included as a vulnerable species in the IUCN Red List, reindeers globally are facing imminent threats from multiple fronts, including climate change, loss of their natural habitats, and increasing human intervention. One particularly daunting challenge arises from temperature changes. This shift in climate has led to a surge of whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) migrating into reindeer habitats. Unfortunately, these new arrivals often carry a nematode parasite, meningeal worm, or brain worm (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis), giving moose and reindeer populations deadly neurological symptoms.

Mike is a degree-qualified researcher and writer passionate about increasing global awareness about climate change and encouraging people to act collectively in resolving these issues.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by Sébastien Goldberg on Unsplash.
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