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Caribou Rangifer tarandus


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Caribou, male
credit: Dean Biggins (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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Alternate name: Reindeer

Family: Cervidae, Deer view all from this family

Description A stocky deer of the far north. Both sexes have antlers; male antlers are larger and semi-palmated, especially the single, flat brow tine that extends down almost, but not quite, past the nose; female antlers are much smaller and less palmate. Female tends to have more white hairs than bulls. Old antlers are whitish, new ones are black from their velvet covering. Coloration and antler size vary across subspecies. The Woodland Caribou from boreal forests and alpine tundra is the largest caribou, and is brown in the summer and grayish in the winter. It has creamy white hair on the neck, mane, underbelly, rump, and on a patch above each hoof. Barren Ground Caribou uses taiga forests and tundra and is medium in size; the coat is chocolate brown in summer, lighter brown in winter. Pearly Caribou from high Arctic islands is smaller with shorter legs, face, and ears, and a lighter coloration.

Dimensions 1.6-2.1m, 11-22cm, 81-153kg; / 1.4-1.9m, 10-20cm, 63-94kg

Endangered Status The Woodland Caribou, a subspecies of the Caribou, is on the U.S. Endangered Species List. It is classified as endangered in Idaho and Washington. The Woodland Caribou once ranged across much of the northern U.S., from Washington to Maine. Today, only one small herd remains south of Canada, in the Selkirk Mountains of northeastern Washington and northern Idaho. Hunting and development encroaching upon their habitat contributed to the decline of these animals. Today accidental shootings and disturbance by snowmobilers continue to threaten the herd.

Breeding Large migratory herds calve on the tundra in the spring, then wander the tundra and forest searching for food.

Habitat Alpine & subalpine habitats, Forests & woodlands

Range Rocky Mountains, Northwest, Eastern Canada, Western Canada, Alaska

Discussion Caribou eat grasses and shrubbery leaves in the summer, lichens in the winter, a food not used by other members of the deer family. Females can more easily detect predators on the open tundra, but in the winter forested regions offer the best forage in the form of lichens, which they reach by digging in the snow. Forest and mountain Caribou migrate less. The Woodland Caribou subspecies (R. t. caribou) is Endangered. Domesticated and European Caribou are known as Reindeer. Depending on the subspecies and time of year, the Caribou uses a variety of boreal forest and treeless tundra and mountain habitats, which are among the harshest and least productive of those used by any member of the deer family.