Fun Facts about Caribou

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Fun Facts about

Reindeer are actually caribou – they are called reindeer in some parts of the world. In some places, reindeer have been domesticated and are used to pull sleds.
Caribou win the prize for the longest-distance migration of any land-dwelling mammal, with some herds traveling 3,100 miles each year!
Caribou are fast – even a day-old caribou could outrun Usain Bolt, one of the fastest Olympic sprinters.
The largest male caribou can weigh up to 700 pounds!

Image: By Pearson Scott Foresman (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Biology and Migration
Map by Cephas (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

he caribou (Latin name: Rangifer tarandus) is a type of deer – they have hooves for feet and they grow a rack of antlers every year. With the deer you might have seen in Connecticut, only the male deer grow antlers, but with caribou both the males and females grow antlers. Their antlers grow each year and then are shed (fall off) in the fall or winter. Caribou eat only plants, especially a kind of lichen known as reindeer moss, but also grass and leaves from certain trees. They live in the Arctic tundra and the taiga (boreal forest), where they are well-adapted to the cold climate. This map shows the caribou range – where they live – in North America. The different shades are for different subspecies. Caribou also live in northern Russia, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
Although not all caribou populations migrate, most herds in North America spend the summer in the northern parts of their range, and then move to a different place for winter where the snow and cold temperatures are not so harsh. They migrate mostly for food – in the summer, there is plenty of lichen and other food for the herd in the north, but it becomes covered with snow in the winter. Some caribou herds are so large that they actually have to keep moving all the time so that they don’t run out of food to eat!
Environmental Science – Global Changes
Caribou are facing a number of threats, mostly related to human-caused global changes. Climate change has probably affected them the most, with the following important effects on their well-being:

  • The snow melts earlier in their summer range, and the young plants begin to grow earlier as well. Plants are easiest to eat and digest when they are very young. Even though the caribou herds are arriving at the same time of year as they always have, the plants are now harder to eat and digest.

  • Caribou don’t have a lot of natural defenses against biting and blood-sucking insects like blackflies and mosquitoes. Warmer summers have led to more biting insects, which disturbs their feeding and in some cases causes the loss of a lot of blood.

  • Because winters are not as cold as they used to be, caribou often have to deal with freezing rain instead of snow. It is fairly easy to push snow aside to get to the lichen and plants underneath, but almost impossible to break through the icy layers left by freezing rain.

One of the other major threats to caribou, particularly in the boreal forest, is human and industrial development. Caribou often can’t or do not want to cross major roads or other barriers that humans have created. For an animal that migrates, this can make it very difficult to get where you are trying to go!

Conservation – How to Help
Most conservation efforts have to do with providing a safe way for them to cross human-made barriers. In some places, people have constructed bridges over highways specifically built for wildlife to use to get across. In other cases, oil pipelines have been constructed far enough off the ground for caribou and other wildlife to pass safely beneath.
More generally, we can help the caribou by doing our best to limit global warming. There are lots of ways you can help – see Polar Bear Discovery File for some specific ways.
Sources: (this page includes a 30-second video at the bottom that shows an example of a conservation campaign strategy) (reading level is higher than grade 4, but there are a lot of good photos and information here)

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