NewsMontana News


A Wilder View: Why real reindeer are as magical as Rudolph

Posted at 1:27 PM, Dec 23, 2022

MISSOULA - Rudolph's nose may help light up the night for Santa to see, but real arctic reindeer have their own special way to see in the dark. We take a look at why real reindeer are just as magical as Rudolph in this edition of A Wilder View

With the holidays here we have been hearing and seeing plenty of pictures, ornaments -- and songs of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. But how well do you really know this northern deer species?

Let’s bundle up and head north to check out an eye-catching adaptation these brilliant creatures have.

Reindeer or in the biological world caribou don’t live as high up as the north pole but they do live in the Arctic. Living this far north means the sun acts much differently than most people are used to.

Reindeer living in the arctic experience two months in winter in complete darkness and two months in summer when the sun never goes down.

During the winter months, reindeer eyes change to a deep rich blue color and in the summer months, it’s a vibrant gold. This color change not only looks cool it actually helps them see. The deep blue color that appears in the winter helps spread light across their eyes allowing them to see better in the dark.

This happens because their eyes get swollen from being dilated for so long and change the structures in their eye. While the golden color changes, like most deer, it is used to reflect light.

According to the Royal Society, this is the first recorded instance of this structure in the eye known as the tapetum lucidum to have a seasonal change in a mammal.

But it’s not just the eyes that have neat adaptations.

To keep up with the cold their noses actually warm the air as they breathe in so their lungs don’t freeze. To do this a bunch of tiny vessels distributes blood around their nose — which, like Rudolph — can make their noses appear red.

To further help with freezing landscapes Caribou hooves shrink in the wintertime. This helps them carve through tough snow by exposing the edge of their hoof.

The original eight reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh were first introduced in 1823 in the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, more commonly known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Although these reindeer are commonly perceived to be male, ecologically speaking they would be female.

Unlike most deer species both boys and girls have antlers, and the ones pulling Santa's sleigh have antlers. But, males will shed their antlers during the winter months while females don’t shed them until the spring or summer time.

That means the reindeer flying through the night are actually girls!