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Inside scoop on reindeers in the real world


A Q&A on what makes a reindeer a reindeer and an overview of their flight patterns (really).

This young reindeer has a very special nose-no, not to shine a red light but to keep it warm. (Shutterstock)

For your holiday reading pleasure-plus the impressive ability to sound like the animal expert you are by delivering random reindeer facts at family gatherings-we found this gem of a Q&A in UANews with two University of Arizona (UA) lecturers about the eccentricities of reindeer. Netzin Steklis, MA, and her husband H. Dieter Steklis, PhD, started UA's Human-Animal Interaction Research Initiative, which aims to understand and promote the health and well-being of humans and animals in symbiotic relationships.

The UANews reported that both Netzin and Dieter Steklis recently visited reindeer at the Grand Canyon Deer Farm in Williams, Arizona, and shared some insights on the uniqueness of this holiday mainstay. Below is a sample of the Q&A from UANews. Click here for the whole story.

Q. What are some of the most unique physical characteristics of reindeer?

Dieter: Well, whenever you mention reindeer, often people think of Rudolph, the storybook red-nosed reindeer. Reindeer have long noses that warm the extremely cold air they breathe before it gets to the lungs. Because they are curious, they also use that nose to explore and investigate. When visiting the reindeer (at the Grand Canyon Deer Farm), we were amazed at how they were sniffing us out like a dog! Why does Rudolph have a red, glowing nose? Perhaps he is cold? Not likely, since reindeer also have special, hollow fur that traps air so that even in frigid winds, they stay warm. Perhaps Rudolph's red nose helps him navigate at night? Reindeer actually do well in low light, which is the condition during much of the year in the northern latitudes where they live. Their eyes capture any light reflected from snow, and they can even see in the UV range, like bees This is particularly helpful since the lichen they eat glows in the UV range. So, they don't need help from Rudolph's luminous muzzle.

Another interesting trait of reindeer has to do with an unusual sound you hear when among a herd. The popular Christmas-carol lyric "up on the housetop, click, click, click" may refer to more than the sound of hooves. Reindeer have tendons that click when they walk. It sounds like when you crack your ankle. Recently, researchers found that loud knee clicking is an "honest signal" of body size-the bigger the reindeer, the louder the clicking, and perhaps the more attractive to the lady reindeer.

Q. Are reindeer wild or domesticated?

Netzin: Reindeer occur as both wild and domesticated and even feral-domesticates that "go wild" and breed with undomesticated ones. Reindeer offer an interesting case that illustrates what happens to animals on the path to domestication, where reproduction is fully controlled by humans. One feature of animals that are domesticated is that they are tame in their behavior. The disposition of our reindeer friends (at the farm) was very calm, unlike other deer. And they need very little or no sedative-it could actually kill them-whereas other deer need sedative when handled by a vet. They also have a short flight distance. That means that a human can approach the animal to within a short distance before it begins to flee. These reindeer are very curious by nature and have a relatively short flight distance, compared to our Arizona pronghorn, which flee if they see you a mile away. Tolerance of humans and short flight distance are probably products of domestication. In fact, the flight distance is different for feral versus wild reindeer. Because they are partially domesticated, feral reindeer have a shorter flight distance compared to their wild herd mates. One student raised his hand in our class and asked, "Why would Santa select reindeer to deliver presents all over the world if they have a short flight distance?" He is now one of our research assistants.

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