This page contains Caribou facts and information, and is part of our Arctic series.
Caribou are large mammals that live in Arctic and subarctic regions all around the world. Caribou are members of the deer (Cervidae) family. Their scientific name is Rangifer Tanandus.
In Europe, caribou are known as reindeer. Read on for more caribou / reindeer facts for kids (and adults!) … and be sure to watch the amazing video of reindeer in the wild!
- Discover more amazing Arctic and subarctic animals here: Arctic Animals List.
- See incredible Arctic pictures, and find out more about the region, here: Arctic Facts.
Caribou Facts: Introduction
Caribou live In northern and Arctic regions of North America, Europe, and Asia.
Typical caribou habitat includes tundra (land with permanently frozen soil in which nothing much can grow) and Boreal forests (northern pine forests).
These cold, harsh environments are home to approximately 2.8 million caribou worldwide. There are fifteen subspecies of caribou across their vast territories.
In 2016, the caribou’s conservation status was changed from ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Vulnerable’. You can find out what caused this further down the page.
How Big Are Caribou?
Caribou grow to between 1.6 and 2m (5.25 and 6.5 ft.) in length, and 0.8 and 1.5 m (2.6 and 5 ft.) in height (measured at the shoulders). They weigh between 60 and 300 kg (132 and 661 lb.).
Typically, domesticated reindeer have shorter legs and are heavier than wild caribou.
Caribou Adaptations For Living In A Cold Climate
Caribou have several adaptations that allow them to live in the harsh arctic climate. One of the most important is a thick, multi-layered, fur coat. This provides warmth, protection from the elements, and buoyancy when swimming.
Caribou also have a Nasoturbinal bone in their noses. This delicate, curled bone supports thin tissue filled with blood vessels. This warms the air the caribou breathes in before it enters the lungs.
Both male and female caribou have antlers. The caribou is the only member of the deer family in which females have antlers, although they are not as large as those of the male.
The male caribou has the largest antlers of any deer except for the moose.
Antlers are used for defence against predators and for clearing snow off the ground to expose food.
Males also use their antlers to fight each other during the mating season, or rut. The antlers are shed every year. Males shed their antlers after the rut, while females will keep their antlers until spring.
Caribou Facts: The Rut
The Caribou mating season or rut runs from late September until early November. During this time, males compete for access to groups of females. If dominance can’t be established via displays, the males will fight, using their antlers to butt and shove their opponents.
Winning the rut means that the dominant male can mate with all of the females in the group. A dominant male can mate with 15-20 females in a single rut.
Calves are born in May and June and can stand within an hour. Within 3-6 hours of birth, calves can run and keep pace with the herd.
Wild Caribou live in large, migratory herds of between 100 and 250,000 individuals. Smaller, domesticated reindeer herds can be between 50 and 1000 individuals in size and are tended by human herders or caretakers.
The video below shows amazing footage of a caribou herd:
Herds consist of bulls (males), cows (females), and calves (young). Caribou herds are constantly moving in search of food. Caribou migrate further than any other land mammal; some herds have been documented traveling 5,000 km (3,105 miles) in search of food.
Typically, herds migrate north in the summer as the snows melt, and south in the winter to escape the harsh Arctic winters.
An averaged size adult caribou requires a minimum of 5kg (11lb.) of food a day to maintain their weight. Caribou are herbivores (plant eaters).
In summer months Caribou graze on grasses, herbs, ferns, and mosses. In winter they paw through the snow with their hooves and antlers to find the lichen and fungi buried underneath.
An important food for Caribou is ‘Reindeer Moss‘, which grows in alpine tundra. Despite its name, it is a lichen, not a moss.
Caribou have a unique enzyme called “Lichenase” which allows them to process lichen for glucose or sugar. This adaptation helps to sustain them through the harsh winters.
Caribou are ruminants and have a large intestinal chamber called a rumen which processes food to be regurgitated and chewed again. This is called “chewing cud”.
What Does ‘Caribou’ Mean?
The Mi’Kmaq are an indigenous, first nations people in Canada. The name “Caribou” comes from the Mi’Kmaq word “qualipu” (pronounced: KAL-i-bu) or “one who paws”.
Are Caribou Endangered?
The caribou’s conservation status has recently been changed from ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Vulnerable’.
Over the last 3 generations, the world population of caribou has fallen by 40%, from just under 5 million to around 2.8 million.
It is thought that this is due to habitat loss and barriers to movement (e.g. roads, livestock fencing, etc.) being constructed across existing habitat. Unregulated hunting may also play a (smaller) part in the recent decline.
During the summer months, caribou herds are plagued by biting flies. Caribou will travel to higher elevations to escape these pests.
Caribou And Man
Humans started hunting caribou for food and hides during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. Evidence shows early domestication of Reindeer in Scandinavia and northwestern Asia around 2,000 years ago.
Caribou and reindeer historically have been very important to native groups, including the Inupiat people in Alaska, the Inuit people in Canada, the Sami people in the northern reaches of Scandinavia, and the Chukchi people of northern Russia and Siberia.
Native peoples used the caribou for food, clothing and shelter. European Reindeer were imported to North America in the late 1800’s for domestication, but most efforts failed as native peoples preferred to hunt the wild Caribou.
Caribou / Reindeer Facts For Kids
- Caribou live in Arctic regions in North America, Europe, and Asia.
- The name Caribou comes from the Mi’Kmaq (a first nations people) word “qualipu” or “one who paws”.
- Caribou herds can migrate as far as 5000 km in search of food and can be as great as 250,000 in number.
- Caribou have unique physical adaptations for living in the harsh Arctic environment, such as the Nasoturbinal bone that allows cold air to be warmed before entering the lungs.
- Caribou are herbivores (plant eaters) and ruminants (they chew cud).
- Both males and female caribou have antlers.
- Caribou calves can stand within an hour of birth and within 3-6 hours can walk and keep pace with the herd.
- Caribou predators include wolves, golden eagles, sea eagles, wolverines, brown bears, polar bears and humans.
- Humans have been hunting Caribou for 5,000-10,000 years and have domesticated them for approximately 2,000 years.
- The conservation status of Caribou / Reindeer has recently been changed to ‘vulnerable’.
Caribou Facts Conclusion
We hope that you have enjoyed reading about the caribou / reindeer.
- You can read about more amazing Arctic animals here: Arctic Animals
- Find out some amazing Arctic facts here: The Arctic Facts