Taking the Reins

By: Paul Hetzler

Volume 15, Issue 12, December 2020

Reindeer have been soaring since long before Christmas came into being. For some reason, the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria), a lovely red-and-white polka-dotted ‘shroom bearing an uncanny resemblance to a Christmas ornament, is quite attractive to these creatures. It’s also hallucinogenic, and Comet, Cupid, and loads of other blitzed reindeer have been observed lurching about after munching the mushrooms. Regrettably, flights of any sort will become less frequent for these animals – their population is in steep decline as a result of a warmer Arctic.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), or caribou as we know them here, don’t make frequent psychedelic trips or they would not have survived for the past 640,000 years, the approximate age of the oldest known reindeer fossil. Native to Arctic, subarctic, and tundra regions throughout the northern hemisphere, reindeer are the second-largest (after moose) member of the deer family.

Alaskan Caribou, a.k.a. Reindeer. Photo by Paul Haverstroh, Wikimedia Commons

They have a long history of close relationship with humans, even outside the Christmas season. For thousands of years, many First Nations depended largely, and some solely, on these majestic animals to survive; in fact, the word caribou itself comes from the Mi’kmaq qalipu. More than a dozen thriving peoples still rely on this species today, including the Inupiat of Alaska, the Inuit and Gwich’in here in Canada, and the Sámi of the Nordic countries and northwest Russia.

Santa's reindeer-powered sleigh entered pop-culture in the late 19th century, and to his credit, Saint Nick got his facts mostly right. His reindeer are depicted with antlers, which would normally get him a failing grade in Biology. Among deer species, males’ antlers grow in springtime and are shed each fall. In addition, only males are generally so endowed. If Santa had used elk or moose, his entire coterie of coursers would’ve been just as bald-headed as the old man himself, and where’s the grandeur in a silhouette like that?

Santa must be thankful that reindeer, which have the longest antlers of any animal in the world, are exceptional among the deer clan in that females and males alike sprout ornate headgear. Another oddity is that females exclusively are able to retain their antlers into the New Year. Yep – Rudolph, Donner, and all the rest are girls. Over a century ahead of their time, it would seem.

Even Santa’s naming of these presumably wild animals is true to life. The Sámi, who traditionally managed feral reindeer herds, didn’t name every animal, of course, or they would not have had time for anything else. They did label those few reindeer which were trained to pull sleighs, though, a practice which continues today among Sámi herders.

And finally, airborne gift delivery may have been a necessary brainchild of Santa, given the fact that a reindeer’s leg tendons click loudly as it walks or runs. It’s hard to sneak up on sugar-hopped kids with eight reindeer making a racket like hail on a tin roof. Drone transport would be quiet as well, though it lacks the magic and romance of a flying sleigh.

We certainly hope Père Noël never needs to resort to a commercial delivery service, but global reindeer numbers are down 40% in the past 25 years, as reported by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Here in Canada, the decline has been 60% during this timeframe, and some details are alarming. In example, the George River caribou herd that ranges across Newfoundland and Labrador as well as northern Québec numbered about 800,000 twenty years ago. Today that figure is about 5,000, a loss of over 99% in a few short years.

The main factor driving this extreme loss is a spike in northern temperatures over the past two decades. One problem with the phrase global warming is that it sounds as if someone pressed the oven preheat button and now we have to wait a while until it’s ready. To inhabitants of mid-latitudes, most of whom have experienced little warming, this may sound exactly right.

On the other hand, residents of the Arctic and subarctic (including non-human animals) know that hotter temperatures have already arrived in high-latitude regions. Perhaps one could reasonably debate how fast our planet is heating, or when it’ll be fully cooked, but no one can argue with what’s right here, right now. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the last time the Arctic was this hot was three million years ago. That’s way the heck before reindeer were invented. As a species, they’ve never seen weather like this.

A steamier Arctic threatens reindeer in ways I never would’ve imagined. Studies show that longer, hotter summers have caused a sharp increase in the population of insect pests. Particularly bad are the reindeer warble fly and nose botfly, two parasitic flies whose larvae eat into the tongues and noses of caribou. They cause such damage and pain that reindeer will stop eating, or even birthing.

Milder winters have also allowed white-tail deer to expand northward, bringing the meningeal fly, or brain worm as it’s often called. Although white-tail deer are partly immune to this brain parasite, it’s fatal to moose, elk and caribou.

It's official: Santa's reindeer are all girls. Photo by TripAdvisor LLC, Creative Commons

Anything we can do to conserve energy or reduce consumption will help limit Arctic warming. As the Dalai Lama reportedly said, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” It’s easy to feel as though our efforts are futile when they’re a drop in the bucket, but hey – that’s how buckets get filled.

You could make a whole bucketful of difference if you’re in a position to swap a big SUV or pickup for a car. Certainly, many folks depend on such things to merely survive, but those vehicles are by no means appropriate for commuting. If a pickup isn’t literally putting food on the table, it’s killing reindeer needlessly. How will we explain this to the kids?

Let’s be brave and do more than we think we can. If we all find the courage to make a small concession, it will definitely have an impact in the Arctic. Think of it as a gift to Santa.

By Paul Hetzler

A naturalist and arborist residing in Val-des-Monts QC, Paul Hetzler traded his pickup for a Nissan Micra, plus a few mushrooms.

Editor's note:

If you like Paul Hetzler's writing then you must get his book, Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World."  It is available on amazon.com, amazon.ca (Canadian), and the convenient Amazon.com (Kindle).  Once you get it, let me know how many time you smiled and/or laughed out loud... As well, see Paul's other TI Life submissions here: https://thousandislandslife.com/author/paul-hetzler/

Posted in: Volume 15, Issue 12, December 2020, Nature

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Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler is a Horticulture and Natural Resources Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension, in Canton, NY. He is the author of "Shady Characters," and the website “Where the Wild Words Are."

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