Santa’s sleigh pulled by does

THE SCIENCE IS IN: ONLY FE­MALES STILL HAVE ANTLERS AROUND CHRIST­MAS

National Post (National Edition) - - NEWS - VANESSA HRVATIN

De­spite the long­stand­ing as­sump­tion that Santa’s main form of trans­porta­tion is a team of burly male rein­deer, science says oth­er­wise. It turns out they’re prob­a­bly fe­males, and while this isn’t nec­es­sar­ily new, it’s some­thing that got a lot of at­ten­tion last week af­ter a tweet went vi­ral.

Cat Reynolds, a 20-yearold English ma­jor at Ford­ham Univer­sity in New York, says she was sur­prised by the at­ten­tion — and back­lash — her tweet about Ru­dolph and the gang re­ceived. In it, she said Santa’s sleigh is “ac­tu­ally pulled by a team of strong, pow­er­ful, un­der­rated women.”

“Some men are very an­gry with me,” she said. “Peo­ple have re­sponded say­ing things like, ‘Rein­deer don’t even ex­ist just like strong pow­er­ful women don’t.’ It’s ridicu­lous.”

A self-pro­claimed fem­i­nist, Reynolds says her in­ten­tion wasn’t to spark a bat­tle, rather she thought it was just a fun tweet that would make peo­ple smile.

“When you look at (the tweet) in iso­la­tion it doesn’t mat­ter much, but on the broader spec­trum it makes you think about how men are al­ways the ones do­ing things and women are por­trayed as just sit­ting around,” she said. “I mean even Mrs. Claus takes care of Santa Claus.”

Reynolds elab­o­rated in a blog she was asked to write af­ter the tweet went vi­ral, say­ing “there are flaws in the fact that rein­deer have been por­trayed as male fig­ures for the past cen­tury and a half as well, de­priv­ing lit­tle girls of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion they need: em­pow­ered fe­male rein­deer.” She went on to (some­what) se­ri­ously re­quest a redo of Christ­mas clas­sics, fea­tur­ing Ru­dolph voiced by a woman.

The science be­hind the gen­der of Santa’s rein­deer rests pre­dom­i­nately on the fact that male rein­deer don’t have antlers at Christ­mas. By early De­cem­ber, they’ve been “dropped” — mean­ing their antlers are shed so that a new set can grow later in the year.

Fe­male rein­deer, on the other hand, would have their antlers for the hol­i­day sea­son. Breed­ing hap­pens in Au­gust and Septem­ber, so fe­males are a few months preg­nant around Christ­mas. Sci­en­tists sus­pect this is why they’ve adapted to keep a tight hold on their antlers.

“Fe­males keep their antlers so they get first dibs on food sources while they’re preg­nant,” says Her­man Bul­ten, pres­i­dent of the Al­berta Rein­deer As­so­ci­a­tion. “This way, they won’t be in com­pe­ti­tion with the males over scarce win­ter food.”

But there’s still a slight chance that Santa em­ployed males — cas­trated males, that is.

“Dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son males will fight to the death,” says Her­man. “They’re very ag­gres­sive, and the only way around that is to cas­trate them.”

Her­man says once a rein­deer is cas­trated, he no longer sheds his antlers, and es­sen­tially loses all of his ag­gres­sive ten­den­cies. He says this prac­tice is some­what com­mon, par­tic­u­larly with rein­deer used for com­mer­cial pur­poses or as pets.

Re­search has shown that cas­trat­ing a male wouldn’t ben­e­fit just Santa, but could also help rein­deer cope with cli­mate change. As Arc­tic tem­per­a­tures warm, snow thaws and then re­freezes, mean­ing a lot of rein­deer food is trapped be­neath this layer. But if the an­i­mal is neutered, they don’t lose their antlers, mak­ing it much eas­ier for them to break through the ice and have a tasty meal. The rein­deer are also more will­ing to share their food with calves that might oth­er­wise die of star­va­tion.

Prac­ti­cal­ity aside, when asked whether there’s any pos­si­bil­ity that Ru­dolph and the gang are non-cas­trated males, Bul­ten says “not re­ally.”

“You might get a re­ally docile male, but it’s un­likely.”

Ac­cord­ing to Brook­field Zoo cu­ra­tor Glenn Granat, Santa’s crew is al­most cer­tainly all fe­males.

“Based on all the il­lus­tra­tions of Santa’s rein­deer that I’ve seen, they’re fe­males be­cause the males would be much larger,” he said.

There might be another tech­ni­cal is­sue with the tale of rein­deer fly­ing around the world (be­sides the ob­vi­ous magic dust that’s re­quired).

While some rein­deer mi­grate (up to nearly 5,000 kilo­me­tres), oth­ers don’t. Her­man says this trait has been se­lected out of lo­cal pop­u­la­tions and some rein­deer pre­fer to stay in one area, mean­ing it would prob­a­bly be dif­fi­cult for Santa to con­vince them to take a 24-hour trip.

The moral of the story ac­cord­ing to Bul­ten?

“Just like with hu­mans, it turns out it’s women who are do­ing most of the work.”

GETTY IMAGES

Rein­deer, known as cari­bou in North Amer­ica, are na­tive to Arc­tic, Subarc­tic, tun­dra, bo­real and moun­tain­ous re­gions. And the North Pole.

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