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Giant topiary reindeer in Covent Garden Piazza, London

Giant topiary reindeer in Covent Garden Piazza, London

When I was a child, my best-loved emblem of the Christmas/holiday season was the reindeer (although, admittedly, I thought they were “rain deer”).  My poor mother had to track down reindeer-themed decorations and jumpers all over the place.  The magnificent antlered beasts were not just my favorite ornaments, but they were also the subjects of my most-preferred songs (in fact, I still find Rudolph’s ascendancy to personal empowerment through effulgent appendages and meteorological coincidence to be quite stirring).  Yet reindeer are not just mythical creatures made up for the holidays—the true nature of these magnificent cold weather specialists is even more remarkable than folklore.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are large powerful cervids native to the trackless tundra of the Arctic and to the taiga and bogs of the subarctic (a vast habitat which encompasses most of Alaska,Canada, Siberia, and northern Europe).  The North American subspecies of reindeer are commonly known as caribou. Although the migratory caribou are rangier (with thinner bodies and longer legs than old world reindeer), they are fundamentally the same creature.  The caribou are the last animals in the Americas to still migrate across the wilderness en masse.  The largest herds number in the hundred thousands (!) and evoke thoughts of the Pliocene or of the Serengeti (although like most other wildlife, the great herds are quickly declining).

A caribou migration in contemporary Alaska

A caribou migration in contemporary Alaska

Adult male reindeer weigh up to 180 kilograms (400 lbs) although a few exceptionally huge bucks have been measured weighing nearly twice that.  The fur of reindeer has two layers: a layer of long hollow outer hairs and a down-like layer of dense fluff.  The fur can be all sorts of shades of stippled and variegated brown, black, cream, and white. Both genders of reindeer grow antlers, and the antlers are the largest in proportion to body mass of any cervid.

Reindeer have many special traits to help them survive the rigorous conditions of their northern habitat. In summer their hooves become sponge-like and flatten out to give them traction on mud.  In winter reindeer hooves harden into sharp wedges for cutting through ice and snow. Unlike white-tailed deer, reindeer can see into the indigo and ultraviolet spectrum.  This ability helps them survive in the grey tundra and the great monochromatic boreal forests.  Many things invisible in the (human) visible spectrum pop out in ultraviolet (most notably fur and urine).

A reindeer poses in front a glacier in Svalbard

A reindeer poses in front a glacier in Svalbard

Reindeer/caribou live predominantly on grasses, sedges, and tender tree shoots during the summer, but in winter their diet changes in accordance with the barrenness of their environment.  During the long lean dark times of winter reindeer largely live on lichen.  The reindeer are almost alone among animals in possessing the enzyme necessary to metabolize the tough lichen (only a handful of gastropod mollusks have been found to also produce lichenase).

DENA_ReindeerTundraYoung reindeer are hunted by golden eagles and wolverines.  Mature adults are largely invulnerable to any animals other than polar bears, brown bears, and above all wolves.  Wolves may be the ultimate predator of reindeer and certain packs live mutualistically with the reindeer herds and follow them all winter.

The Sami people prepare to migrate with the herd

The Sami people prepare to migrate with the herd

Humankind has a similarly ancient and intimate relationship with the reindeer and caribou. Since the depths of the ice age, human hunter-gatherers have stalked the great herds of deer. Some tribes began to follow the herds along their entire migratory routes and eventually the people and deer gradually became integrated.  The domestication of animals began similarly with goats (ibexes), cows (aurochs), and pigs, but, in the case of reindeer, the process stalled in the middle. Certain herds of reindeer are semi-domesticated: but the herders follow the deer as much as the reverse.  The reindeer provide skin, meat, milk, and transportation to the tough herding/hunting nomads of the north (mainly the Sami in the modern world).  The herders protect the reindeer from wolves, bear, and hunters.

A reindeer sleigh in Lapland (image from the Finnish Tourism Bureau)

A reindeer sleigh in Lapland (image from the Finnish Tourism Bureau)

Although they are not perfectly domesticated (and would probably keep on with their ancient migrations if humankind all dropped dead or decided to emigrate to Alfa-Centauri), reindeer are docile, gentle, and extremely beautiful.  They are a perfect emblem of the season (although Santa’s presumably male herd would shed their antlers before Christmas), but they are an even greater emblem of the last great wilds which can be found in the far north.  I devoutly hope that the great changes of the Anthropocene do not reduce the reindeer and caribou herds to a fraction of what they are today.  I guess I still love them as much as ever.  Where is that sweater with reindeer on it and the old Rudolph record?

Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper! I'll be away for the next couple days...

Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper! I’ll be away for the next couple days…

Northern pudu (Pudu mephistophiles)

Northern pudu (Pudu mephistophiles)

Last week we wrote about the strange Monito del monte—an arboreal marsupial which lives in the Valdivian temperate rain forests of Chile and Argentina.  This week’s headlines are filled with exciting zoo news related to those strange forests.  A baby southern pudú (Pudu puda) was born in the Queens zoo a month ago (zoos delay the announcement of newborns in order to dramatize public introductions).  Pudús are the world’s tiniest deer: adults weigh up to 12 kilograms (26 lb), although the mightiest stags can sometimes reach 13.4 kilograms (30 lb) and loom up to 44 centimeters (17 in) tall.  Female pudús lack antlers, however the stags have tiny antlers with no forks (which can measure up to 7.5 centimeters (3.0 inches) long).  There are two species in this genus of cervids:  the southern pudú (Pudu puda) & the northern pudú (Pudu mephistophiles) which are similar in appearance and habit (although the northern pudú is smaller, and only gets up to 33 cm (13 inches) in height).

A Northern Pudu (Pudu mephistophiles) with a small human for scale (photo by Noga Shanee)

A Northern Pudu (Pudu mephistophiles) with a small human for scale (photo by Noga Shanee)

Pudús hide in the low growing vegetation of the miniature forests where they dwell and they feed on the same vegetation by pulling it down with their hooves or by climbing stumps and low branches to reach the leaves.  Their vocalizations are as adorable as they themselves are: the diminutive deer bark when they are alarmed.  If they become angry, their fur bristles and they shiver.  This display of wrath is not especially intimidating and many predators prey on pudús, including owls, foxes, and tiny rainforest cats (and occasionally formidable pumas).  Unfortunately, humans have introduced dogs and red deer to the delicate Andean cloud forests where the deer live and these invaders are respectively overhunting and outcompeting the winsome little deer.

One month old pudú fawn

One month old pudú fawn

I am extremely happy that there is a little pudú fawn living in Queens.  I am also glad another animal from the temperate rainforests of South Chile (the last surviving remnant of the rainforests of Antarctica) is in the news.  I desperately wish John D. Dawson would paint a picture of the eco-region so that I truly could show you how strange and lovely the plants and animals there are.  But, until that happy occasion, here is another pudú photo.

Southern pudu buck (Pudu puda) by Andrzej Barabasz

Southern pudu buck (Pudu puda) by Andrzej Barabasz

Irish Elk (Painting by Charles R. Knight)

Megaloceros giganteus was the largest deer to ever exist.  The huge animal would have stood 2.1 meters (over seven feet) tall at the shoulders and had antlers more than 3.65 meters (12 feet across).  During the Late Pleistocene (the glacial epoch immediately prior to the Holocene) the giant deer ranged from Lake Baikal in northern Asia across all parts of Europe down into northern Africa.

In English, Megaloceros giganteus, is more commonly known as the Irish Elk, a name which is something of a misnomer since the creature lived across broad swaths of three continents and was not actually very closely related to elk and moose.   The name was originally adopted because many nearly perfect fossils of the Megaloceros were found in the great peat bogs in Ireland.  So perfect were the skeletons that a misguided biological theorist, Thomas Molyneux, used the remains as evidence that no species ever went extinct (a question which was at the forefront of science at the end of the eighteenth centery).  Molyneux believed that the Irish Elk skeletons were actually those of large moose or elk and that divine providence would never allow an animal to disappear forever from earth.   Unfortunately Molyneux was completely mistaken.  The great zoologist, Georges Cuvier comprehensively proved that the Megaloceros was very distinct from living Moose and Elk and was therefore gone from the world.  It is strange to think that there was a time as recent as the nineteenth century when natural philosophers argued about whether extinction was possible or not.

A painting of Megaloceros giganteus, from the Lascuax caves (at least 10,000 years old).

Although the Irish Elk coexisted with humankind for a long time, sadly something went awry and the great beast went extinct at least 7,700 years ago.  Strangely, overhunting by humans was probably not the reason the Megaloceros died out.  However the actual reason for the extinction of the magnificent mammal has been a long standing cause of dissent among paleontologists.  An obsolete school of thought held that the creatures’ antlers became so immense  that the beasts could no longer hold their heads up.  A likeminded school of thought believed the antlers (which grew larger and larger in response to female’s preference for a mate with big antlers) left the animal unable to compete with smaller and more nimble competitors.  A new theory concentrates on the amount of calcium and phosphate necessary to grow such stately and humungous antlers.  As vegetation changed in response to the end of the ice age, the poor Irish Elks could not get enough of the proper nutrients and began to suffer like old ladies from osteoporosis.  A final answer to the mystery is still outstanding.

Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus) RIP


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