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More About Reindeer (or is that a Caribou?)

What's the difference between reindeer and caribou? Not much. Reindeer, whose scientific name is Rangifer tarandus, are semi-domesticated, slightly smaller than their wild cousins, and have a flatter nose. While Americans make the distinction between reindeer and caribou, in most of the world, both types are called reindeer. Oro Stewart always said that Star was very affectionate, and that when she saw Oro, she made a "snuffling" sound. That remarkable, snuffling nose is uniquely designed for life in the Far North. Inside are "nasal turbinate bones," which look like rolled up pieces of paper. These specialized bones increase the area inside the reindeer's nostrils, and allow body heat to warm the cold air before entering their lungs.

Reindeer and caribou hooves seem to adapt to the season. In summers, when the tundra is soft and wet, the animals' footpads become spongy. In the winter, the pads shrink and tighten, exposing more of the hardened hoof, which cuts into the ice, giving the deer better footing. So winter or summer, the animal is prepared for what the weather brings. A reindeer's coat has two layers of fur. It has a dense woolly undercoat and a longer-haired overcoat consisting of hollow, air-filled hairs. The air-filled hairs hold heat from the sun, and also help the animals float when they're swimming. Migrating herds of caribou often must swim across large lakes or fast-moving streams. Both males and females grow antlers, which are shed each year. In Alaska, reindeer herding is the exclusive right of Natives since the Reindeer Act was passed in 1937. In 2000, there were close to 20,000 reindeer in Alaska. The most famous among the reindeer herders was Sinrock Mary, a remarkable Iñupiaq woman who was the richest woman in Alaska at the start of the 20th century.

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Star the Reindeer

Gallery of Images
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A reindeer harnessed up for pulling a sled
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Caribou swimming Tanana River
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Milking reindeer, Point Barrow
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Corralled reindeer at Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island


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