Caribou (or Reindeer)

  • Polar bears playing at the Eclipse Sound floe edge
    Caribou overlooking the view of mountains.

    Photo credit: M.S. Sears.

  • An adult male caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in Greenland.

    Photo © Eric Post on Penn State Flickr.

  • Baby reindeer at Prague Zoological Gardens.

    Photo credit: Tomáš Adamec, Zoo Praha.

  • Caribou on Herschel Island, Canada.

Quick Facts

Scientific name:
Rangifer tarandus
Indigenous name:
Tuktu (Inuktitut), Tuttu (Inupiaq), Athíko (Woods Cree), Vadzaih (Gwich’in), Boazu (Northern Sami)
IUCN conservation status:

Vulnerable (assessed December 24, 2015)

Genome sequenced?
No. of chromosomes:
35 x 2
Size of genome:

Did You Know?

  • The name Caribou is derived from the qalipu, a Mi’kmaq word that means snow shoveler 
  • The largest herd of caribou is the Taimyr herd of Siberian tundra reindeer (between 400,000 to 1,000,000 individuals)  
  • Caribou are the only mammals that can metabolize lichen because of their specialized microbiota.  
  • Caribou is the only domesticated deer in the world. There are partial and fully domesticated herds in Finland, Norway, and Canada.  
  • At 18%, Reindeer milk can have six times more fat than cow’s milk. 
  • Akin to Rudolf, the mythical Caribou in Christmas legend, caribou can have a red nose because of the numerous veins that heat the frigid air entering the lungs.  
  • Caribou fur hair is hollow to increase the insulation against the Arctic cold. 
  • Whether Caribou and Reindeer are the same species or not is still debated by some, but the genomic evidence proves them to be the same. 
  • In North America, often Caribou is used to describe the wild animals and Reindeer is used for domesticated.  


Life History

Caribou, also called Reindeer in many European countries, are land mammals belonging to the deer family. Distributed around the Arctic and Subarctic lands on all three continents, there are about 15 subspecies of Caribou, varying sizes and colors. Both male and female caribou can grow antlers, a feature unique to them in the deer family. While many subspecies of Caribou are migratory, some subspecies, such as Woodland Caribou are sedentary. Owing to the wide changes in temperature from winter to summer, Caribou have developed seasonal adaptations, such as varying the weight and fat mass. This variation is also influenced by the breeding activity of both males and females. Caribous mate between September and November with a gestation period of about seven and a half months. Like deer, Caribou are ruminant with a four-chambered stomach eat leaves and grasses, but mostly lichen during the winter months. Caribous live on average about 15 years, with males living about four fewer years.  

Importance in Indigenous Culture

Caribou or Reindeer have been part of the life of many Indigenous peoples throughout the Arctic for thousands of years. Caribou bones make up a large portion of animal bones at many archeological sites in and around Arctic Circle. Many pre-historic communities settled along the Caribou migration routes. Many indigenous cultures have ceremonies associated with the caribou hunt. One common belief is that Caribous are under the control of a master (or Caribou man) and permission is required from the master to hunt the Caribou. Netsilik Inuit hunters were forbidden to hunt caribou in naturally formed crossing and thus will create crossing where Caribou will be hunted. In many beliefs, Caribou being land animals are thought to be natural enemies of sea animals and hence should not be cooked or eaten together.  

Apart from the spiritual well-being, Caribou is central to life and is of great importance to Northern Indigenous communities. Almost the entirety of Caribou is used either as food (flesh and marrow), clothing (sinew and hide), or tools (antlers and tallow). Caribou meat is also preserved by hang drying or smoking during warmer months to prepare for the harsh winters when the catch is lean. The ways to prepare various parts of Caribou depend upon the Indigenous people. Not only the fermented content of the stomach is a delicacy in many cultures, but the stomach itself is used as a fermentation vessel. Many communities have either partially or fully domesticated caribou and maintain herds to meet their needs. 

Conservation Issues

Caribou (or Reindeer) as a species are listed under vulnerable status, but some subspecies are more threatened than others. At least two subspecies, Dawson’s Caribou (subspecies dawsoni) and East Greenland Caribou (subspecies eogroenlandicus) are considered extinct. The populations of Caribou in the southern ranges of North America are increasingly under threat from human activities, including habit destruction, and disturbance. For example, the George River heard of the boreal woodland caribou, the largest subspecies in size once migrated around Nunavik (Northern Québec) and Nunatsiavut (Labrador) in numbers up to 800,000 - the second largest herd in the world. Since then, this caribou herd has shrunk by 99% to only 5,500 individuals in 2018. Through partnerships with various stakeholders, including provincial and territorial governments and First Nations, the Government of Canada is implementing strategies for the recovery of woodland caribou through protection and recovery of habitat. Early efforts could be responsible for the slight recovery of the George River herd to 8,100 individuals in 2020. Similarly, strategies for conservation are currently underway in Finland, the United States,  

Role of Genomics

Genomics evidence shows that Caribou and Reindeer are the same species, Rangifer tarandus.


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