Reindeer in the Arctic: How Do They Survive?

Written by Jennifer Gaeng
Published: December 10, 2021
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Reindeer Antlers
A female reindeer with her calf in the Arctic during springtime.

Reindeer are a species of deer also known as caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in certain regions. They are found in the Arctic tundra. Many arctic islands covered in the tundra are home to reindeer, along boreal forests. Finland is home to a small population of woodland reindeer. And, following a successful reintroduction in the Cairngorms, they are now also found in Scotland. With reindeer living in some of the harshest Arctic environments in the world, let’s dive into how they survive.

How Reindeer Survive in the Arctic

Male reindeer isolated on white background.
A Reindeers’ Antlers, fur, vision, and feet are created to withstand wintry conditions.

Reindeers survive in the Arctic thanks to a series of adaptations that allow them to survive frigid temperatures and long winters where food is scarce. Temperatures in the Arctic routinely fall below zero, with snowy and frozen terrain. So, just how exactly does a reindeer survive in the Arctic’s extreme cold? There are several explanations for this:

Antlers

An active layer of permafrost is the only layer of soil that can support plant life in the Arctic tundra, which lacks adequate soil layers like those seen in temperate grassland. Despite this, there are between 1700 and 2,000 plant species that survive in this soil, which is classified as Gelisol Soil. This layer of soil melts in the summer and allows plant life to thrive. As the seasons change, the weather changes as well, causing melting and freezing cycle. The further north you go, the smaller the active layer you have, and the less growth you can expect. Tundra soil can be anywhere from 10 to 40 inches deep (25 to 100 cm)!

The antlers of reindeer are used to scrape away snow and burrow through the soil in search of food. Among deer species, reindeer antlers are among the largest, and they are also unique in that they are present on both male and female reindeer. Every year, reindeer antlers shed their old antlers to grow new antlers for the upcoming seasons and conditions they must face.

Fur

Tundra temperatures often hover around -28°C (-18.4°F) throughout the coldest months of the year, with severe lows of -70°C (-94°F) being common. Temperatures rise to their highest points in July and August when they can reach as high as 16°C (60°F). Conditions here are harsh, and survival requires specific adaptations. Reindeer have an ultra-fine and dense underfur with a shaggy upper layer. The outer hairs are hollow, like the fur of a polar bear, and provide insulation.

Nose

The reindeer nose is not only furry, but it has a unique warming process going on inside. To explain, the air a reindeer breathes is heated as they inhale and cooled as they exhale, causing water vapor to condense before being released into the atmosphere. This keeps them warm and even creates a pinkish-red tinge on their noses, much like Rudolph!

Vision

The arctic tundra often lacks sunshine. Summer days last 24 hours, yet the sun remains low on the horizon. For this reason, it is known as the land of the midnight sun. During the winter, the opposite occurs, and the entire landscape is dark. Reindeer eyes are sensitive to ultraviolet light to cope with the long dark Arctic winters and improve vision.

Tendons and Hooves

As a reindeer walks, the tendons in the foot joint make a clicking sound. These noises help herds keep together in limited visibility. They also have two toes with large claws attached that extend outward. These hooves, as they are known, distribute their weight and provide traction. A process known as cratering is used by reindeer to burrow through the snow with their hooves and retrieve food that is hidden.

What Do Reindeer Eat In the Arctic?

Reindeer Antlers
Reindeer eat mostly vegetation, including grasses, bushes, lichen. birch and willow.

Jeff McGraw/Shutterstock.com

There is little food for animals to eat in the Arctic. Reindeer utilize their powerful hooves and antlers to sift through snow and ice and eat foods such as:

  • Grasses
  • Bushes
  • Lichen
  • Sedges
  • Birch
  • Willow

Much of these foods get buried by the snow and ice during the winter. As a result, reindeer eat mostly grasses, sedges, birch, and willow during the summer months on the tundra. Many reindeer move to the wet, northern woodlands in the winter to eat lichen, which is a plant made up of fungus and algae.

The bacteria and protozoans in the stomach of a reindeer break down lichen compounds into sugars that the animals use for sustenance. Reindeer need a lot of food to survive a long winter. A reindeer can eat up to twenty pounds of food each day! For many reindeer to survive in the wild, this lichen is necessary.

Where Do Reindeer Live in the Arctic

Female Reindeer Have Antlers
Most reindeer live in the Arctic Tundra.

Reindeer live in the Arctic tundra (a frigid treeless plain) and the northern boreal woodlands that border the tundra.

The Arctic reindeer differs from reindeer living in the Arctic. The Arctic reindeer, (Rangifer tarandus eogroenlandicus), was a subspecies of the reindeer that resided in eastern Greenland, but sadly died out in the early 1900s. Greenland is the world’s largest island, positioned between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. Many reindeer still exist in the Arctic.

From 60 to 70 degrees latitude North is the arctic tundra. This biome is found in Alaska, Canada’s Northern Coast and islands, Coastal Greenland, Iceland, Northern Europe (Scandinavia), Svalbard (an island north of Norway), and much of Russia’s Northern Coast and Siberia. Some people disregard the Antarctic Peninsula and isolated islands off the coast of Antarctica to be true “Arctic Tundra” because they are in the south.

Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) is the name given to four subspecies of reindeer living in North America, which include:

  • R. t. groenlandicus; (barren-ground caribou)
  • R. t. pearyi; (Peary caribou)
  • R. t. caribou; (boreal, migratory, and montane)
  • R. t. granti; (Porcupine caribou or Grant’s caribou)

Reindeer Population in the Arctic

Although reindeer still exist in the Arctic, their numbers have been dropping drastically over the past few decades; a 56% drop to be exact. This is because of a variety of factors, such as poaching, sickness, food shortages, and climate change. Five herds in Alaska-Canada have seen such extreme losses that recovery is unlikely.

Caribou play a vital role in Arctic ecosystems by helping to cycle nutrients and shape plant groups. Many caribou herds are in decline around the Arctic. Caribou populations reflect forest health. A healthy caribou population reflects a healthy boreal ecology. By safeguarding its environment, we can not only save this species and a slew of others, but we can also do our part to combat global warming and protect tundra environments.

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About the Author

A substantial part of my life has been spent as a writer and artist, with great respect to observing nature with an analytical and metaphysical eye. Upon close investigation, the natural world exposes truths far beyond the obvious. For me, the source of all that we are is embodied in our planet; and the process of writing and creating art around this topic is an attempt to communicate its wonders.