11 Reindeer Facts to Share This Winter

iStock.com/Dmitry_Chulov
iStock.com/Dmitry_Chulov

Beyond their sled-pulling capabilities and discrimination towards those with red noses, what do you really know about reindeer?

1. Reindeer and caribou are the same thing.

Historically, the European/Asian reindeer and American Caribou were considered to be different species, but they are actually one and the same. There are two major groups of reindeer, the tundra and the woodland, which are divided according to the type of region the animal lives in, not their global location. The animals are further divided into subspecies, ranging from nine to thirteen depending on who is doing the classification. At least one subspecies, the Arctic Reindeer, is already extinct. (The reindeer/caribou thing could technically get more complicated in the future—check out this Discovery News article for more details.)

2. They go by many names, all of which seem appropriate.

Reindeer comes from the Old Norse word “hreinin,” which means “horned animal.” Caribou is based on the French word for “snow shoveler,” in reference to the animal’s habit of digging through the snow for food. In many Eastern European languages, the root word for the creature is “po?aw,” which comes from an Iranian word meaning “cattle.” This makes sense given that the animals were semi-domesticated in these areas and used for meat, fur, milk and transportation.

3. Santa’s reindeer are most likely the R.t. platyrhynchus subspecies from the Svalbard islands off of Norway.

We know that because Clement C. Moore’s poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which first introduced the world to Santa’s reindeer, describes them as tiny. The only reindeer that could really be considered tiny are the Svalbard subspecies (above), which weigh about half as much as the average reindeer species and are at least a foot shorter in length—that definitely proves useful when landing on roofs.

Strangely, you’ll almost never see these guys in depictions of Santa, as live-action films usually use full-sized reindeer and animations usually draw the creatures as a cross between a regular deer and a reindeer.

4. It’s not always easy to tell the sex of a reindeer.

In most deer species, only the male grows antlers, but that’s not true for most reindeer. Although the females in certain populations do not have antlers, many do. During certain times of year, you can still tell the sex of a reindeer by checking for antlers. That’s because males lose their antlers in winter or spring, but females shed theirs in the summer. The females are significantly smaller than the males, but you may get thrown if you come across a particularly large female or a small male.

5. Santa’s reindeer may or may not be female.

Since reindeer shed their antlers at different points of the year based on their sex and age, we know that Santa’s reindeer probably aren't older males, because older male reindeer lose their antlers in December and Christmas reindeer are always depicted with their antlers. That means Santa’s sled either has to be pulled by young reindeer, constantly replaced as they start to age, or Santa’s reindeer are female. Do you want to imagine a rotating crop of sleigh pullers or an all-female lineup? It’s up to you.

6. Reindeer were originally connected to Santa through poetry.

Before Moore wrote “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”) in 1823, no one thought about reindeer in conjunction with Santa Claus. Moore introduced the world to Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (the last two of which were later changed from Dutch to German, becoming Donner and Blitzen). While the first six names all make sense in English, the last two actually mean “thunder” and “lightning,” respectively.

As for little Rudolph, he wasn’t introduced until Robert L. May wrote a children’s book in verse for Montgomery Ward in 1939 titled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Rudolph’s name means “famous wolf” in German.

7. Just recently, researchers at University College London discovered reindeer are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light.

While human vision cuts off at wavelengths around 400 nm, reindeers can see up to 320 nm. This range only covers the part of the spectrum we can see with the help of a black light, but it is still enough to help reindeer see things in the glowing white of the Arctic that they would otherwise miss. Things like white fur and urine are difficult, even impossible, for humans to see in the snow, but for reindeer, they show up in high contrast.

8. Reindeer are ideally designed for life in hostile, cold environments.

iStock

Life in the tundra is hard, but reindeer have it easy thanks to their amazing evolutionary enhancements. Their noses are specially adapted to warm the air they breathe before it enters their lungs and to condense water in the air, which they then use to keep their mucous membranes moist. Their fur traps air, which not only helps provide them with excellent insulation, but also keeps them buoyant in water, which is critical being as how they often travel across massive rivers and lakes while migrating.

Even their hooves are special. In the summer, when the ground is wet, their foot pads are softened, providing them with extra traction. In the winter, though, the pads tighten, revealing the rim of their hooves, which is used to provide traction in the slippery snow and ice.

9. While not all reindeer migrate, some of them travel further than any other migrating terrestrial mammal.

A few populations of North American reindeer travel over 3,100 miles per year, covering around 23 miles per day. At their top speed, these reindeer can run 50 miles per hour and swim at 6.2 miles per hour. During spring, the migration herds range from 50,000 to 500,000 individuals, but during the winter the groups are much smaller as the reindeer have entered mating season and competition between the bucks begins to split up the crowds. Like many herd animals, the calves learn to walk fast—within only 90 minutes of being born, a baby reindeer can already run.

10. Reindeer played an important role in the survival of many cultures.

In Scandinavia and Canada, reindeer hunting helped keep tribes alive, from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods all the way through modern times. In Norway, it is still common to find reindeer trapping pits, guiding fences and bow rests dating from all the way back to the Stone Age. And in Scandinavia, reindeer is still a popular meat, sold in grocery stores in fresh, canned and dried forms. Almost all of the animal’s organs are edible and many are crucial ingredients of traditional dishes in the area.

In North America, the Inuit people still use the creature as they have for thousands of years, for food, clothing, shelter and tools. Many of these tribes still follow traditional practices that prevent selling the meat and limit the number they may kill on each hunting trip.

11. They used to live a lot farther south.

While reindeer now live exclusively in the northern points of the globe, when the earth was cooler and humans were less of a threat, their territory was larger. In fact, reindeer used to live all the way down in Nevada, Tennessee and Spain during the Pleistocene area. Its habitat has shrunk considerably in the last few centuries. In the 19th century, reindeer still lived in Southern Idaho.

As for how 9 reindeer manage to fly while pulling a sled carrying presents for every child in the whole world, science still hasn’t worked that out.

A Newly Discovered Species of Prehistoric Shark Was Named After the Video Game Galaga

Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum
Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum

Dinosaurs weren’t the only fearsome creatures who called North America their home millions of years ago. The recent discovery of pointy, fossilized teeth in rock that had been left over from an excavation in the ‘90s has led scientists to declare a new—yet long-extinct—shark species, Smithsonian reports.

North Carolina State University professor Terry Gates, who led the study published in the Journal of Paleontology, named the shark species Galagadon nordquistae after its triangular teeth, which he thought resembled the shape of the battleships in the video game Galaga. The second part of the name pays homage to Karen Nordquist, the retired chemist and volunteer at Chicago’s Field Museum who found the fossils in the first place.

Galagadon lived in what we now know as South Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation, an area known for having rocks and fossils that date back at least 65 million years to the Cretaceous Period. It’s the same place where scientists unearthed Sue the T.rex—the most complete skeleton of its species ever discovered. Not only did the shark live at the same time as Sue, but it also “lived in a river Sue probably drank from,” the Field Museum, where Sue can be seen on display, said in a press release.

In fact, the excavation that led to Sue’s discovery in 1990 is what enabled this latest find. The sediment that encased Sue’s bones, known as matrix, was removed and stored in an underground unit at the Field Museum. Scientists and museum volunteers have only recently begun to sift through it in search of smaller fossils.

Shark tooth fossils
Terry Gates, Journal of Paleontology

Sharks’ skeletons are primarily made of cartilage, which deteriorates over time. But the tiny teeth, measuring just a millimeter wide, helped scientists figure out what the shark looked like. "Galagadon was less than 2 feet long—it's not exactly Jaws," Pete Makovicky, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

The species is believed to be similar to bamboo sharks, which can be found today in southeast Asia and Australia. This connection surprised researchers, who are now questioning their understanding of the area where Sue was found, which was thought to be a lake formed from a partially dried-up river. This latest discovery, however, indicates that there “must have been at least some connection to marine environments," Makovicky says.

[h/t Smithsonian]

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
iStock.com/PaulReevesPhotography

If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

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