Santa's Reindeer

Contributor: Lindsey Congalosi. Lesson ID: 13249

You're probably familiar with reindeer, but how much do you really know? Can their noses glow red? What's a caribou? How can their fur help them fly? Read on to find these things out and more.

categories

Life Science, World Cultures

subject
Science
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12), Adult Learning
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

You probably know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and everyone else, but how much do you really know about reindeer? Could Rudolph's nose really glow red? Can reindeer fly? The truth is out there.

Santa's sleigh

There are so many myths about reindeer, it's hard to know what to believe. It's time to set the truth straight. Here are some facts about reindeer.

Fact #1: Santa's reindeer are female.

As you probably know, Santa's sled is powered by reindeer, also known as caribou. Santa uses a team of eight or nine reindeer (depending on cloud conditions).

  • Does it surprise you to learn that every single one of Santa's reindeer is female?

If you look closely, you can see a specific body part that indicates all of the reindeer in the photo below are female.

sleigh reindeer

  • Did you see the body part that indicates these reindeer are female? Antlers!

In most deer species, only the male deer grow antlers. However, many types of female reindeer also grow their own set of antlers each year. Male reindeer lose their antlers at the beginning of winter, but female reindeer do not shed their antlers until summer.

male and female reindeer

So if you see a reindeer with antlers on December 25th, it is most likely a female. You go, reindeer! Pull that sleigh!

girl power

Fact #2: Reindeer fur is lighter than you might think.

An average adult female reindeer weighs about 200 pounds. Scientists have yet to discover how a reindeer could fly, but their fur might give us some answers.

Reindeer have two types of fur to keep them warm. Some other mammals, including certain breeds of dog, also have two layers of fur - an undercoat and an overcoat. The overcoat tends to remain full year-round, but the undercoat grows thicker in winter. Interestingly, if an animal only has one layer of fur, it is referred to as a hair coat rather than a fur coat.

The inside fur of a double coat is called the undercoat. It is dense and woolly and exists to keep the reindeer warm, similar to the fuzzy sweater you wear when it's cold outside.

The outside fur, or topcoat, repels water, shields from dirt, and insulates. If your sweater represents an undercoat, then a reindeer topcoat would best be represented by a puffy jacket.

sweater and jacket

A reindeer's topcoat has an interesting quality - it's hollow. Each individual hair is similar to a small, air-filled tube. This "empty space" provides the reindeer with even more insulation.

Although filled with fluff, a puffy jacket is mostly air. You can see this by squeezing a puffy jacket. You should be able to compress it to a fraction of its original size.

The reindeer's hollow fur also makes it much more buoyant. In other words, reindeer are able to float and swim more efficiently because their fur has a low density.

swimming reindeer

  • Does this give reindeer the power to fly?

No, but it would make it a lot easier!

Fact #3: A reindeer's nose really can "glow'" red.

Reindeer fur is great for keeping them warm, but what about when they become too warm? It's not like they can simply remove their coats like we can, so reindeer have evolved another way.

Researchers in Sweden used thermal imaging cameras to observe reindeer as they graze. A thermal imaging camera is a camera that detects infrared radiation, also known as heat, and shows it as visible light.

thermal imaging camera

Researchers found that, unsurprisingly, the reindeer were very well insulated. Almost no heat was seen coming off of the reindeer's fur. In fact, their fur is such a good insulator that they can lay down in the snow without even melting it.

reindeer resting in the snow

However, researchers did see heat escaping from the reindeer's bodies - through their noses.

Reindeer have a lot of blood vessels in their noses and lips. In fact, they have 25% more blood vessels in their noses than humans do.

This keeps their noses and mouths warm, so that they are able to smell and rummage through the snow to get their food. When the blood travels through these particular blood vessels, much of its heat leaves the vessels and escapes into the air.

This high concentration of blood vessels is often visible, causing the reindeer's noses to appear pink or red in color. Like this Norwegian Arctic region reindeer, image courtesy of Smithsonian.com. Rudolph? Is that you?!

Nature on PBS explains this phenomenon and why Reindeer Noses Really Do Glow Red!:

 

Now let's assess your level of reindeer expertise in the Got It? section.

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