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Are Caribou and Reindeer the Same Animal?

Updated on January 10, 2011

Differences in caribou and reindeer


With all the recent hoopla about Sarah Palin’s caribou hunt on TLC’s Sarah Palin’s Alaska, several of my friends and I began to wonder if a caribou and a reindeer are the same critter. We’re all at least semi-intelligent, but none of us were really sure. I began to research, and I discovered that we were not alone in our confusion. So…are caribou and reindeer the same animal? Yes…and no. read on, my curious friend!


Caribou and reindeer are the same species, Rangifer tarandus. There are seven subspecies of caribou, however. I think this is the source for most of the confusion surrounding caribou and reindeer. The Alaskan caribou is Rangifer tarandus granti, while the domesticated reindeer is Rangifer tarandus tarandus. Rangifer tarandus tarandus is the caribou (or reindeer) that pull Santa’s sleigh. That clears everything up, right?


Alaskan caribou


The species Rangifer tarandus are large migratory ruminants and the only member of the deer family in which both sexes have antlers. Occasionally, as some whitetail deer hunters might point out, a female of another deer species might grow antlers, but this is a rare occurrence and out of the norm. The antlers of a male caribou can get huge – up to 52 inches in length. The antlers on cows usually don’t exceed 20 inches.


Bull caribou can grow to 700 pounds, but the average is more like 400 pounds. Cows usually average around 200 pounds. In addition to having large antlers, caribou also have big feet. Their concave hooves spread out to act like snowshoes, enabling the animals to walk on the boggy tundra and on snow.


A female caribou that’s in excellent physical condition might have her first calf at sixteen or eighteen months. In most herds, however, the females are over two years of age before their first calving. Alaskan caribou bear young in May or June, and most have a single calf every year. Twin calves are rare. A newborn caribou weighs about thirteen pounds, but it grows quickly. Within two weeks, the baby usually doubles its birth weight. Within just an hour or so after birth, a caribou calf is capable of keeping up with its mother, and after 24 hours, it can run. Predators like wolves, bears, and even eagles kill a fairly large percentage of caribou calves.


Like deer, caribou shed their antlers every year. Older males usually lose their antlers in late fall, after the breeding rut is over. Caribou use their antlers for defense, and males use them in sparring with other males during the breeding season. These fights over territory can get violent, with some animals being killed. Younger animals generally keep their antlers until spring. Interestingly, pregnant cows usually keep their antlers until their calves arrive.


Differences in caribou and reindeer


Reindeer are domesticated animals, much like cattle, and have probably been so for more than 3,000 years. Reindeer are a staple of the Sami, who use the reindeer for meat, leather, and milk, as well as using the deer to pull sledges. The antlers are often carved into knife blades and sold for extra income. The Sami inhabit the region of Sapmi, which includes the northern sections of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula.


The fur of a reindeer is usually thicker than that of a wild caribou, and the head is shaped a little differently, with a shorter muzzle. Reindeer can also be piebald – brown and white. Also, reindeer cows usually have larger antlers than female caribou have. Another difference is in the breeding season. While caribou breed in September, reindeer breed in August.


So what’s the final verdict?


Are caribou and reindeer the same critter, or not? They’re the same species, but different subspecies. The subspecies can breed successfully. Generally speaking, the species is referred to as “caribou” in North America, and as “reindeer” in Europe and Asia. You decide for yourself. How does “eight little caribou pull his sleigh” sound? How ‘bout “Rudolph, the red-nosed caribou”?


Reindeer or caribou?
Reindeer or caribou?


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    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks, HH!

      Rob, u berry funny guy. lol!

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 7 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Also, caribou don't pull Santa's sleigh. Reindeer do!

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      You certainly solved that mystery with your well done research and hub.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Jamie, caribou are big critters!

      Drbj, it's really more an example of word choice.

      Pam, I dunno. I'm always thinking of weird stuff! lol

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      I have to, Bpop - it's the teacher in me! lol

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

      Habee, Where do you come up with these topic? This was actually very interesting and I'm glad you wrote this hub.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 7 years ago from south Florida

      Hi, Holle. Didja ever notice how skinny reindeer/caribou legs are. Makes one wonder how they support their weight.

      Thanks for the research but I'm still a little confused. Are you saying every reindeer is a caribou but not all caribous are reindeer?

    • Jamie Brock profile image

      Jamie Brock 7 years ago from Texas

      I actually was wondering that myself, after seeing the Sarah Palin episode. The caribou seemed huge to me!

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 7 years ago

      You always teach me something new. Thanks.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      How are ya, ya old coot?!

    • profile image

      ralwus 7 years ago

      they have clicky heels too.