Guru Magazine - - Contents - AU­TUMN SAR­TAIN

Ever won­dered why rein­deer are Santa’s choice of Christ­mas gift trans­porta­tion? Na­ture Guru, Au­tumn Sar­tain, ex­plains why they’re the per­fect choice this Yule­tide.

It was a cold, dark night, and Santa needed to get presents to all the nice chil­dren of the world. So he piled the gifts in his sleigh, hitched up his eight fly­ing rein­deer and saved the day. Thank good­ness for the rein­deer!

Sadly, if rein­deer sci­en­tists have ob­served them fly­ing, they haven’t re­ported it. But if we ig­nore that triv­i­al­ity for a mo­ment, we are still left with an im­por­tant ques­tion: are rein­deer the right choice for Santa’s sleigh? Here are eight rea­sons why they could be ex­actly what Santa needs on a cer­tain cold, dark night.

They don’t have to com­mute very far for the job

St Nick needn’t worry about hav­ing to im­port beasts to carry his heavy bur­den: rein­deer al­ready live pretty close to the North Pole, if not ac­tu­ally on it (as you may re­mem­ber the North Pole is in the mid­dle of the Arc­tic Ocean and cov­ered in shift­ing sea ice). They live through­out north­ern lat­i­tudes in coun­tries like Nor­way, Fin­land, Rus­sia, Green­land, Canada and parts of the U.S.

They can keep warm

Pre­sum­ably, stay­ing warm would be a key con­cern while fly­ing in the open air at high al­ti­tude (it’s pretty chilly up there: –44°C at 30,000 feet/ 9,000 m). Luck­ily, rein­deer are equipped. They have two lay­ers of fur: one coat of dense wool and another above it with hol­low hairs for added in­su­la­tion. Also, while their noses aren’t ac­tu­ally glow­ing red bulbs, they do work to keep the rein­deers warm. The es­pe­cially large sur­face area of their nos­trils warms up the frigid air with their body heat be­fore it reaches their lungs.

They have ex­pe­ri­ence (more than you would imag­ine!)

The in­dige­nous peo­ple of Scan­danavia, the Sámi, used rein­deer to pull their pulks, a low-slung to­bog­gan. How­ever, this was an un­for­tu­nate ap­point­ment for the rein­deer, as they would be cas­trated first by hav­ing a Sámi man chew on their tes­ti­cles. I doubt Santa would do the same, but he hasn’t re­sponded to my re­quest for an in­ter­view.

Their feet are great for slip­pery land­ings

Bet­ter than a snow chain, rein­deer have adapt­able hooves. Sum­mer­time means soft and wet tun­dra, and their foot­pads be­come like sponges to help them get trac­tion. Deep in win­ter though, th­ese pads shrink and be­come hard, mak­ing ap­pro­pri­ate sleigh-land­ing gear in snowy con­di­tions. With a sharp hoof edge, they can cut into ice and crusted snow, which they do while dig­ging for lichen. And for scrap­ing the ice off chim­neys.

They can work through the night (or day)

The Arc­tic is a place where the terms ‘day’ and ‘night’ take on an ab­strac­tion that most of us couldn’t han­dle. Two months of the year it’s

dark and two months it’s light. With this kind of vari­a­tion, hu­mans un­doubt­edly suf­fer as our

cir­ca­dian rhythm strug­gles to ad­just to the pat­terns of rest. Not so the rein­deer. To adapt to the mas­sive changes in day­light reg­u­lar­ity, they’ve dropped their 24-hour sleep-wake body rhythm al­to­gether. With­out the clock, they are able to for­age when­ever con­di­tions are right, whether ‘night’ or ‘day’. Ideal, con­sid­er­ing the long night they have in store.

They are more peace­ful in win­ter

Males lock antlers and push each other to show strength and dom­i­nance while try­ing to win over the ladies. They also loudly groan at and chase fe­males, later adding a lit­tle ex­tra at­trac­tive­ness by dig­ging troughs in which to de­posit urine. (Now, which warm-blooded fe­male could re­sist that?) The males are so caught up in th­ese bat­tles and pur­suits that they even stop eat­ing and lose weight. Luck­ily for Santa, he doesn’t have to deal with this drama dur­ing his busy work sched­ule be­cause mat­ing only oc­curs from Septem­ber to Novem­ber. This is as­sum­ing Dasher and the rest are male, be­cause fe­male rein­deers have antlers too. On that note, de­pend­ing on the sub­species and age, males might not have antlers at all in late De­cem­ber.

They can see bet­ter than us

…at least when it comes to UV light. Re­searchers re­cently dis­cov­ered that rein­deer can see light at a higher fre­quency than hu­mans. This helps them see con­trasts in the mostly white and low-light en­vi­ron­ment, which likely helps them bet­ter dis­cern each other, preda­tors, food such as lichen and mince pies, and even urine. Just the an­i­mal to lead the way in the mid­dle of the night to de­liver presents.

They have stamina

How would you feel about walk­ing 5,000 km this year? Some rein­deer pop­u­la­tions in North Amer­ica do this ev­ery year on what is the long­est mi­gra­tion for any land-based mam­mal. Not only that, but they’re fast – which could come in handy dur­ing sleigh take-offs. They travel 19–55 km a day dur­ing mi­gra­tion (think, power walk­ing a marathon or more each day) and can run 60–80 km/h. With their speed, stamina, har­di­ness and gen­eral good-looks, there seems to be no ques­tion that rein­deer are per­fect for the job of pulling Santa’s sleigh. And with wolves as their pri­mary preda­tor, they prob­a­bly wouldn’t even mind land­ing on rooftops to avoid the fam­ily dog.

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