Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Reindeer

11 Facts You Probably Never Knew About Reindeer

Reindeer with antlers in Blaikfjallets nature reserve. (Photo: Eva Mårtensson/Getty Images).

Sure, you know the song. And you know they pull Santa's sleigh. But how much do you really know about reindeer? Here are 11 fun facts that you probably never knew about the world's favorite yule-tide mammal.

1. They may or not be the same thing as caribou. 

The jury is still out on this one. Some researchers say that European and Asian reindeer are the same species as the American caribou. But a recent study of the migration patterns of the species Rangifer tarandus (which includes caribou and reindeer) followed the paths of these mammals over the last 21,000 years, and found them to be different - but closely related mammals.

 Don Moore, a wildlife biologist for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, describes reindeer as a “mostly-domesticated race of caribou.”

2. Santa's reindeer probably came from Norway's Svalbard islands.

The world was first introduced to reindeer in Clement C. Moore’s poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which was written in 1823. In that poem, Moore describes Santa's reindeer as tiny. The only reindeer that could really be considered tiny are the Svalbard subspecies, which are about a foot shorter and weigh about half as much as other reindeer species. That makes for a much lighter landing on rooftops!

3. Two of Santa's reindeer had a name change.

Moore introduced the world to the idea of Santa's famous reindeer - Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem. Don't recognize those last two? That's because when their names were translated from Dutch to German they became Donner and Blitzen.

Those two names mean “thunder” and “lightning,” respectively.

4.  Rudolph wasn't one of the original reindeer.

As for little Rudolph, he wasn’t part of the original lineup at all. He was introduced to the world by Robert L. May in the children’s book he wrote for Montgomery Ward in 1939 titled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

” Rudolph’s name means “famous wolf” in German.

5. Since they can't change their shoes, reindeer change their feet.

Reindeer feet are perfectly suited to their harsh and ever-changing ecosystem. In the summer their footpads become soft and spongy to provide extra traction for traversing the soft tundra. In the winter, their footpads tighten and shrink, exposing the hoof rim, which allows reindeer to cut their way through ice and dig through snow in search of food.

6. They may not be able to fly, but they can swim.

Santa's reindeer notwithstanding, most reindeeer can't actually fly. But they can swim. The hair in their coats is actually hollow, providing better insulation as well as buoyancy to enable the reindeer to swim across rough, wide rivers and icy expanses of ocean. They can swim up to six miles per hour.

7. Santa's reindeer may be females.

Unlike other species of deer, both male and female reindeer can grow antlers. Males shed their antlers in early winter while females shed theirs much later. So in all likelihood, Santa's sleigh is powered by female reindeer!

9. Reindeer are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light.

A recent study from researchers at the University College London found that reindeer are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light.

 Humans can only see things in wavelengths up to around 400 nm, but reindeers can see up to 320 nm. This helps them spot food and predators in the glowing white expanse of the Arctic.

9. Reindeer used to live in Idaho.

As late as the 19th century, reindeer territory expanded all of the way down to Southern Idaho. But habitat loss and warming temperatures have pushed reindeer to the northern points of the globe.

10. They are born running.

Within 90 minutes of its birth, a baby reindeer can run at a brisk pace. Within a few hours, it can run for several miles.