Geography in the News: Rudolph and the Other Reindeer

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

GEOGRAPHY IN THE NEWS (1118)  Neal G. Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner Appalachian State University

Across the United States, children and adults alike recognize Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as the leader of Santa Claus’ sleigh at Christmas. Reindeer first pulled St. Nicholas’ sleigh in a poem by Clement Clarke Moore appearing in a Troy, New York, newspaper just before Christmas, 1823.

The poem titled “Twas the Night Before Christmas” gave names to the eight original reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Rudolph joined the team in 1949 when Gene Autry first introduced him in a song.

Reindeer are central to Sami society in Norway, where nomadic lifestyles are nearly gone. Photograph by George F. Mobley, National Geographic
Reindeer are central to Sami society in Norway, where nomadic lifestyles are nearly gone.
Photograph by George F. Mobley, National Geographic

The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) is part of the deer family (Cervidae), but it differs fundamentally from most other members. Reindeer are the only members of the deer family whose females grow antlers. A reindeer has a very thick coat providing excellent insulation and its muzzle is covered in hair, unlike the American white-tailed deer. Each of these unique reindeer characteristics has evolved naturally, as the species adapted to its harsh environment on the arctic tundra and margins of the northern boreal forest.

The tundra is an open, treeless landscape located around the rim of the Arctic Ocean in Asia and North America. Beneath the first few inches of the ground’s surface is permafrost, permanently frozen “subsoil” that extends 1,000 feet (305 m) deep in places. At the surface, however, lies the “active layer,” a few inches of soil that thaws during the short summer.

Since the water created from the thawing cannot seep through the permafrost, the active layer becomes a few inches of soft mud, covered by a thin layer of mosses, lichens, short grasses and flowering plants. Reindeer must navigate this surface and feed on these plants.

The reindeer’s large cleft (divided) hooves allow it to travel over snow in winter and soft saturated surfaces during the summer. The hairy muzzle provides protection for the reindeer’s nose as it feeds on the plants beneath the snow.

On the tundra’s barren surface with few places to hide for protection from predators, reindeer must rely on speed and endurance. Since there are few physical hurtles on the rolling tundra, reindeer never developed the jumping abilities of the whitetail deer. Evolution, however, provided the female reindeer with antlers with which to protect her young.

In addition to their dense woolly undercoat, reindeer have a unique longer overcoat of hollow hairs that help trap air for insulation. These hairs also afford reindeer increased buoyancy that makes them robust swimmers. Besides crossing swift rivers, reindeer can also navigate the frozen waters of the Arctic Ocean.

Reindeer are actually semi-domesticated caribou. Smaller than their wild caribou cousins, an adult reindeer is relatively short at about 3.5 feet (107 cm), but weighs in at a hefty 300 pounds (140 kg).

Scientists believe that reindeer have been domesticated in Eurasia for at least 2,000 years. The Sami (sometimes called Lapps) were the first herders of reindeer. Sami reside north of the Arctic Circle in present-day Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula.

Geography in the News_1176_Reindeer

The reindeer serves as the Sami version of a cow and horse. Although some of the animals are allowed to range free, others are treated as domestic livestock. Some are milked after bearing young and others are trained to the harness to draw a sleigh.

The successful relationship between the Sami and reindeer has led to efforts to introduce the animals into other cultures living in the arctic environments across Northern Asia, Alaska and Canada. No other human culture, however, has been as successful at herding reindeer as the Sami.

Sami in Norway load supplies on reindeer sleds for their migration to Arnoy. Photograph by George F. Mobley
Sami in Norway load supplies on reindeer sleds for their migration to Arnoy. Photograph by George F. Mobley

The legend of St. Nick would not be complete without the arctic symbol of the reindeer. Although it took some poetic license to have reindeer fly, those who understand the animal’s intelligence and utility certainly know that reindeer can do just about everything else.

And that is Geography in the News.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Sources: GITN #1176, “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer,, Dec. 10, 2012; GITN #551, “Rudolph the Reindeer,”, Dec. 22, 2000; ; and


Article: February 6, Sami National Day

Article: Endangered Sami Language Becomes Extinct

Activity (30 min) for Grades 6-8, ages 11-14: The Arctic Region

Potential Questions for Students:

1.Introducing reindeer in Alaska and Canada has seen little success. Why do you think this could be? What do you know about the native peoples’ relationship to wild caribou in those regions? Could that relationship have anything to do with their resistance to herd reindeer?

2. Reindeer have seen changes across their range resulting from global climate change. What is climate change doing to the Arctic region in general? How does that affect the reindeer’s habitat? Will their habitat contract or expand over time? Why? Name some other animals of the arctic region that may be in jeopardy from global warming trends.

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