“When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer!”
—T’was The Night Before Christmas
Sorry, Rudolph! Take a seat, Blitzen! According to Perry Barboza, professor at the department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A&M, Santa may wouldn’t exactly get much bang for his buck with reindeer. The professor says chances are, they were never reindeer at all but caribou. That’s right, we’ve all been lied to.
“Although Siberian reindeer may appear a suitable choice [for pulling Santa’s sleigh,] North American caribou are leaner and longer-legged than reindeer during this time of year,” Barboza said in a report published in the scientific journal, Physiological and Biochemical Zoology. “What has been reported in sightings as ‘eight tiny reindeer’ are therefore likely to be young caribou.”
It isn’t as if this is a guess or assumption either. Barboza spent 18 years on the faculty at the University of Alaska just 200 miles from the Arctic Circle. He spent a lot of time with both reindeer, caribou and muskoxen, which are kind of like a combination of oxen, sheep and goat with a thick coat and a very pungent odor.
While many animals hibernate in the winter, caribou migrate to mountain ranges located south of the Brooks Range in Alaska. It’s about a 1,000-mile journey with anywhere from 40-60,000 in a heard. Barboza found that they’re able to make the long journey because the way they process their food is incredibly energy efficient. They eat low-protein lichen which is a wiry ground cover with thick branches that is remarkably sturdy. They can actually smell it through the snow and it’s a good thing too because it makes up about 90 percent of their diet during the winter months.
Their bodies are able to store the energy for longer periods of time where reindeer can’t. Reindeer also don’t migrate the way that caribou do and stay more stationary. So, if you think about pulling a sleigh around the world for a full Christmas night, those poor reindeer likely wouldn’t make it. Caribou would because they’re stronger and leaner making them more able to “deliver high power with a minimal flight mass,” he said.
“Caribou live off protein stored in the previous year,” he said. “Calves born in June are actually constructed from protein [the mother] stored from the last August. On the other hand, reindeer give birth before much food is available, so their energy storage is much lower.”
Caribou calves also have the “greatest power-to-mass ratios” when they are entering their first winters because their legs are much longer than adult caribou. Barboza says that this implies that there is a young flight team that is new to the sleigh each year. But we can withhold that tidbit of information from the kiddos.