Monday, December 7, 2015

The Reindeer

The first thing you need to know about reindeer is that, like a spy or a pro wrestler, they go by different names depending on where they are. If you're reading this in the Russian taiga or in the fjords of Lapland, you're familiar with reindeer, rangifer tarandus, the antlered species of deer that roam around munching on lichens and growing a crown of antlers that can range in size from cute to terrifying. If you're reading this in Greenland or the Canadian tundra, however, you only know of Caribou, rangifer tarandus, those hooved cuties that roam around avoiding wolves and hanging out in sometimes massive herds.
 Just kidding! Everyone knows about reindeer. Due to their place in the pagan-Christian Santa Claus mythology of the western world, they are a pop culturally protected species, disproportionately beloved and sought after, especially in the winter months. There's the song, of course, then there's the Rankin/Bass Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, then there's the 1989 film Prancer which I remember sending me into a spiral of existential despair sometime in the second grade. There's also a reindeer sidekick in the extraordinarily popular Disney film Frozen, which you know kicked up its numbers on Google Trends.
But what's really the difference between a reindeer and a caribou? This should be obvious by now: a reindeer is a charismatic and charming celebrity animal, a caribou is that gross moose type thing you skip at the zoo.

That's not the only thing reindeer have going for themselves. Reindeer get to live in objectively the best part of the world (the Arctic circle), and unlike some of their neighbors up there, they're not even close to endangered. Part of this is just because most of their predators (wolves, bears) only pick off the smallest and weakest of the herd, and part of this is that like so many deer species, reindeer have a handy way of breeding way past the point of practicality. I mean, if you were this cute and glamorous, you would too.

But back to the predators — why will nobody step to the reindeer? Is it their antlers? I mean, if you think about it, antlers are pretty fucking crazy. Just close your eyes, and forget that reindeer have antlers and moose have antlers and there are antlers on the wall of that artisanal whiskey bar in your neighborhood. Now open your eyes and look at a reindeer.

Antlers are so weird! What are antlers, you ask? Well, they're just a bone like any other bone ... if any other bone grew into a massive biological chandelier covered in a soft layer of skin which then molted off. And if that bone then died and hung around on top of your head for a while before falling off. And if that happened every year. Antlers are used for combat and sexual selection (a.k.a. fightin' and fuckin'), two of the greatest hobbies of the animal kingdom.
So maybe that's freaking out all the would-be reindeer eaters. But you know who's not freaked out? Mosquitoes.
Yes, believe it or not, one of the greatest threats to the modern reindeer are mosquitos. Not bears. Not wolves. Not idiot humans looking for decorations for their billiard rooms. Mosquito bites, especially in the summer, can cause so much stress to reindeer that they stop feeding — both adults and calves. Here is a picture of some reindeer huddling on snow to avoid their bites. Look at it and try to imagine anything more pathetic.


Look, I can sympathize. I'm the kind of person who gets ten times as many bug bites as everyone else during an average summer picnic; when I cry out in disgust and shame at my befouled limbs, at least one person always says, "aw, it's just ‘cause you're so sweet." I'm sure all those reindeer have heard the same line. Well, guess what: just because you're sweet and wonderful doesn't mean that's an invitation for bloodsuckers and users to feed off all your positive energy. Maybe it's not the toughest thing to be brought low by a tiny biting insect, but the stress is real.

But the fact that this is one of the only real Achilles heels of the reindeer just goes to show how resilient they are. And did I even mention how many flavors they come in? My personal favorite is the Svalbard reindeer, one of the northernmost subspecies, which looks like a sporty little dog or jackalope. Look at it go!

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