In North America, there are two names for Rangifer tarandus, Reindeer and caribou.
They’re both members of the same species, but they’re different subspecies.
The genus name, Rangifer, and species name, tarandus, are the same for reindeer and caribou.
The main difference between reindeer and caribou is their status as domesticated creatures. Reindeer are a semi-domesticated Rangifer subspecies that have numerous subspecies, while caribou are wild.
The term “reindeer” is typically used in reference to the domesticated subspecies while “caribou” applies to the wild ones. However, this isn’t always the case as some people use the terms interchangeably.
The domestication of caribou began about 2,000 years ago in Eurasia. While Europeans just call both the wild and domesticated subspecies “reindeer,” North Americans have two different names for them. Reindeer were utilized to pull sledges across frozen tundra, giving birth to Santa’s mythical Christmas sleigh.
Man has domesticated numerous reindeer herds for transportation, food, milk, hides, and antlers. Caribou have never been tamed. This variation has also resulted in more subtle differences in physical form. As a result, reindeer are smaller and beefier than they were previously.
Reindeer are less active than caribou, too. While they do travel throughout a grazing area, they don’t make the lengthy journeys that caribou do. The majority reside within enclosed fields, where human herders keep an eye on them. As a result, they are more docile, stocky, and have shorter legs and necks.
Caribou, on the other hand, are wild animals that travel in large herds across tundra and mountains. Because they live in such harsh conditions, they’ve had to adapt. As a result, caribou are rangier than reindeer with longer legs and necks. They’re also more timid since they’re constantly on the lookout for predators.
In North America, people usually hunt caribou for their meat. Reindeer are hunted as well, but not as often. The primary reason for this is that most of the world’s domesticated reindeer herds are found in Europe.
Reindeer breeding season begins as much as a month before caribou. The birth of reindeer babies is generally in April, but caribou babies are born in May.
Despite their large numbers, caribous are an endangered species. The caribou has a very warm very soft fur that is hollow, insulated and sheds water and snow. This valuable fur was traded for a lot of money in the 1800’s. The caribou population decreased because of over hunting until laws were passed to protect it.
Rangifer tarandus are the only deer species where both male and female have antlers but some females have no antlers. Males have larger and more branched out antlers than females which can extend in size to over 1 metre (3.25 feet). Their antlers grow directly from their skulls and are covered with a thin skin called a ‘velvet’. During the ‘rutting’ season, the velvet on the males antlers disappear.
Males use their antlers to fight each other for access to females. Male antlers fall off after the mating season has finished and females lose their antlers during the birthing season.
Caribou have 2 circulation systems in their bodies. The circulation through the legs is up to 50 degrees colder than the circulation system for the rest of their body. Caribous have hollow hairs rooted in a thick layer of fat also to conserve heat during freezing temperatures.
Caribou are susceptible to and recover slowly from population declines because of their low rate of reproduction. The main factors leading to caribou declines are habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, as well as predation. Loss of caribou habitat, which is permanent, occurs when forest is cleared for agriculture. Habitat degradation means a reduction in the amount or quality of caribou habitat, as happens following such events as wildfires or timber harvesting, or through human disturbance.