Caribou

Rangifer tarandus

Last updated: August 29, 2021
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff

Males and females grow antlers



Caribou Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Mammalia
Order
Artiodactyla
Family
Cervidae
Genus
Rangifer
Scientific Name
Rangifer tarandus

Caribou Conservation Status

Caribou Locations

Caribou Locations

Caribou Facts

Name Of Young
Calves
Group Behavior
  • Herd
Fun Fact
Males and females grow antlers
Estimated Population Size
About 5 million
Biggest Threat
Wolves, Grizzly bears, and disease
Most Distinctive Feature
Antlers
Other Name(s)
Reindeer, rangifer tarandus, qalipu, tuktu
Gestation Period
228 - 234 days
Litter Size
1
Habitat
Tundra, woodland, mountain, forest
Predators
Wolves, and Grizzly bears
Diet
Herbivore
Favorite Food
Reindeer Moss, grass, shrubs, leaves, mushrooms, and sedges
Type
Mammal
Common Name
Caribou or reindeer
Number Of Species
9
Location
Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland, Greenland, the High Arctic islands, Norway, and Iceland

Caribou Physical Characteristics

Colour
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • White
  • Dark Grey
Skin Type
Fur
Top Speed
50 mph
Lifespan
15 years
Weight
180 – 701+ lbs. (depending on species)
Height
33 – 59 inches (depending on species)
Length
64–84 inches (depending on species)
Age of Sexual Maturity
1.5 to 3.5 years
Age of Weaning
5 to 6 months

Caribou Images

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Caribou, which are sometimes referred to as reindeer, are notable for their antlers, growing back bigger every single year. They have a unique stomach composition that allows them to eat many different types of food, thanks to the bacteria in their stomach. It covers several different species, though hunting has led to the extinction of two species. Plus, the coat of the particular subspecies will get darker or lighter to match the natural climate in which it lives.

5 Incredible Caribou Facts!

Here are a few fun facts about the Caribou.

  • While the males are typically differentiated by the presence of antlers, both males and females have antlers.
  • The stomach of a caribou has four chambers.
  • The fur of the caribou largely depends on where they live. Lighter colors are associated with northern regions, while caribou with dark coats live in southern areas instead.
  • The scientific name of the caribou translates to “reindeer reindeer.”
  • Caribou are often hunted for their meat.

Caribou Scientific Name

The caribou, which goes by the scientific nameRangifer tarandus,” is part of the Mammal class. They go by several names, including reindeer, qalipu, and tuktu. They are part of the Cervidae family.

The name “Rangifer tarandus” was chosen by Carl Linnaeus, describing the reindeer genus as “Rangifer.” It is Latin, and it literally means “reindeer.”

Tarandus, however, comes from a New Latin translation of the ancient word “tárandos,” which means reindeer as well.

Caribou Appearance

The caribou, better known as a reindeer, is known for the massive antlers that start right at their brow. Both females and males have antlers, and they are the only cervid species to do so. The antlers begin to grow in March or April for males, though the females will start their growth in May and June. The antlers feature a velvety texture that is deep through to blend with the rest of their body. The rack can ultimately reach a height of 3 feet tall.


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The cloven hooves help the caribou animal to walk easily on many surfaces, including swamps and snow. Their hooves appear to have four toes, and they adapt to the season that they are in.

The fur of this mammal largely depends on the season, the subspecies, and the individual caribou animal. In the north, the fur tends to be white to blend with the snow, which is typical of the Peary caribou. Darker fur is seen in southern areas, and the darkest caribou of all tends to be the boreal woodland caribou.

The species will also determine how large the animal is. Females are often smaller than males, starting at 64 inches in length, 33 inches in height, and about 180 lb. in weight. The smallest reindeer comes from Svalbard and has a height of just 31 inches. Males will vary more between the species, starting at 350 lbs. However, the biggest species have males that can be well over 700 lbs. That’s slightly less than the weight of an Arabian riding horse.

Male Caribou grazing on Toklat river basin.
Male Caribou grazing on Toklat river basin.

Caribou Behavior

The social behavior of the Caribou largely depends on the locations and species. They prefer to live in groups called herds, and most caribou will cover about 3,000 miles annually with impressive speed as they search for food. During migration, there’s a chance that the caribou animal can become susceptible to parasites, making them incredibly weak. Parasites can vary from one species to the next, but migration can cause them to lose their weakest caribou during travel.

Caribou can reach an impressive speed during migration, running up to 50 mph. Even the baby caribou can outrun an Olympic runner when they’re barely 24 hours old. Herds that migrate during the springtime could have up to 500,000 caribou animals, though autumn migrations are much smaller.

While they don’t tend to attack humans, herds with both males and females tend to cause aggression between individuals of the same gender.

Caribou Habitat

Caribou previously were only found in certain locations in Scandinavia, Mongolia, eastern Europe, Greenland, Russia, and some parts of China. However, it can also be found in North America as low as Maine and as high as Alaska. Animals that live further north tend to have a white coat that conceals them in the snow, while southern locations feature a dark brown color that shields them in the woods.

These mammals can live in the tundra or the forest, though migration and climate change can be credited for their lower numbers across large areas. They use lichen as a way to stimulate their glucose levels during the winter, but their diet is herbivorous.

Caribou Predators and Threats

Caribou fall under a unique category of ruminants, meaning that their stomach is a total of four chambers. They are the only large animal that can use lichen to make glucose. However, their primary diet consists of willows, birches, grasses, and other plant life. They’ll even eat the antlers of other caribou before they are shed to get supplementary nutrients. Some will even eat mushrooms.

When they are not able to get the nutrients they need in springtime, the caribou will also eat small rodents, fish, and bird eggs.

What eats Caribou?

Though the caribou is a rather large animal, they still have many predators. In some areas, the caribou is hunted for its meat by humans. In fact, this is part of the reason that caribou tend to go extinct in some locations.

The calves are at the greatest risk of predators since golden eagles and wolverines tend to go after them. However, polar bears and brown bears tend to go after reindeer of all sizes. They are also extremely at risk of bloodsucking insects like mosquitoes, black flies, and the reindeer nose botfly.

What do Caribou eat?

Caribou are not really carnivorous unless they have to be. However, if their springtime nourishment isn’t quite as plentiful as they’d like, they’ll look for what’s available (like rodents, fish, and eggs).

Caribou Reproduction, Babies, and Lifespan

During the fall (from late September to early November), reindeers will mate. The males will battle each other to win the females, locking their antlers as they push against each other. The victorious males will likely get as many as 20 females to mate with, losing a lot of their weight in the process. They have a gestation period of 228-234 days (about 7-8 months).

Females generally only take on one mate at this time, siding with the more dominant males. They are incredibly careful while choosing where they will give birth, looking for an area that generally doesn’t have many predators. The herd follows the doe as she looks for the right place to give birth to a single calf, which typically weighs about 13 lbs. Each baby comes into the world with live birth, and they will learn to forage as early as 45 days. They will nurse from their mother until the autumn when they are about 3-4 months old.

Baby caribou are called calves, running within less than two hours after birth with a speed that exceeds that of an Olympic runner. Females have a longer lifespan than males at about 17 years, though males will live about 4 years less.

Caribou Population

Since Caribou consist of many different species, there are a few subspecies that have already gone extinct. As recently as 2015, reindeer are on the Vulnerable list with the IUCN since they have seen a decline of 40% in the last 2.5 decades. However, the massive population of the caribou specifically ensures that the main species is not at any risk right now.
The Rangifer tarandus dawsoni already went extinct, and the Rangifer tarandus pearyi is one of the endangered species.

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Caribou FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are caribou carnivores, herbivores, or omnivores?

The caribou is only an herbivore, feeding on grass, shrubs, leaves, and their preferred diet of reindeer moss.

Is a caribou a reindeer?

Yes, reindeer is another name for caribou, as is rangifer tarandus, qalipu, and tuktu.

What do caribou eat?

When the season is right, reindeer moss and mushrooms are their favorite foods along with wild grasses, mosses, herbs, ferns, shrubs, and leaves.

What is a male caribou called?

Male caribou are referred to as bulls.

What are 3 facts about caribou?

Both male and female caribou have antlers. From their noses to their hooves, reindeer are covered in fur. The caribou antlers are coated in a spongy velvety layer that is shed only when fully grown.

Where does the caribou live?

Caribou live in colder remote areas of the world, such as Canada and Alaska, in forests, woodlands, and the tundra.

What animal eats Caribou?

Grizzly bears and wolves are the primary predators of caribou.

Are Caribou aggressive?

Widely domesticated, they tend to have a calm temperament and do not appear to be aggressive animals.

Can you eat caribou?

It is very desirable, both for their meat and for their milk and hides.

Which is bigger an elk or a caribou?

An adult elk can grow to a weight of 850 pounds while bull caribou can reach a maximum weight of 701 pounds and are approximately 20 inches shorter.

Sources
  1. USGS, Available here: https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/70048867
  2. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reindeer
  3. Animal Corner, Available here: https://animalcorner.org/animals/caribou/
  4. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Available here: https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=caribou.main
  5. FDA, Available here: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/fun-facts-about-reindeer-and-caribou
  6. Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/animal/reindeer

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