Caribou licking salt from the side of a highway in northern B.C. (Joseph N. Hall/Wikimedia Commons)

Caribou licking salt from the side of a highway in northern B.C. (Joseph N. Hall/Wikimedia Commons)

The Nature Nut

Rosamund Pojar

So where is Rudolph?

He must be hanging out near Santa’s workshop up north. However, one of his relatives – the caribou – lives close by in the Telkwa Mountains and could do the job. Both caribou and ‘reindeer’ are the same species Rangifer tarandus. Reindeer is the European name given to both wild and domesticated animals. The various caribou populations vary in size and morphology and are considered subspecies or ecotypes.

The largest are the woodland (mountain) caribou. The barren ground caribou, which range across the far north are smaller and have more compact bodies to reduce heat loss.

Like the mountain goats (The Nature Nut, Dec. 15, 2022), caribou are really well adapted for survival in the severe winter weather with a two-layered coat of soft inner hair and hollow outer guard hairs filled with warm air. Traditionally Inuit people used caribou skins to make clothing with the fur side placed inside close to the body.

The relatively large, cloven hooves appear somewhat clumsy and comical but can spread widely for stability. The two ‘toes’ are very rounded on the outer edge with lots of hair between them. Together with a pair of large dew claws behind their hooves, their big feet are well adapted for running fast across bumpy, boggy tundra in summer. Additional hair and the width of the hooves means they act like snowshoes for easy movement across snow in winter.

Ground and arboreal lichens are important foods for Woodland Caribou. The animals have a good sense of smell and can detect ground lichens growing underneath snow which they reach by scraping away the snow with the saucer-shaped hooves (a process called ‘cratering’).

Caribou are excellent swimmers and use their hooves like paddles. The name ‘caribou’ might be a corruption of the Mi’kmaq name for the animal “xalibu” which means “the one who paws.”

Caribou are the only member of the deer family where both the males (bulls) and females (cows) have antlers. The male antlers are huge and used for displays of dominance (fighting) during breeding season after which they drop off. The female antlers are much smaller and are retained for a longer time and used to help protect the calves from predators.

The northern barren ground caribou hold the record for migrating over huge distances to and from breeding grounds. They can move fast, but no one has discovered any of them flying so far.

Caribou were very abundant in the mountains around this valley prior to settlement and the development of the railroad.

The herds were severely depleted as the animals were hunted in large numbers to provide food for the railroad builders. The Babine herd became extinct despite the presence of perfect habitat for them. The numbers in the Telkwa herd got so low that hunting was banned, and genetically similar animals were brought in to replenish the herd.

However, continual disturbance means that they, and herds all over their range are not doing well, with most in severe decline.

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