Reindeer and Other Arctic Land Mammals


There are fewer than 50 species of land mammals which inhabit the Arctic. This accounts for only about one percent of all the mammalian species in the world, and demonstrates that the Arctic environment is not altogether suited to mammalian life. Those that do inhabit the area have undergone great physiological, physical, and behavioral adaptations to assure survival. The Arctic terrestrial mammalian fauna is restricted to five orders, and include shrews, hares, rodents, carnivores, and the clovenhoofed artiodactyls. Many of the smaller species tend to have very limited ranges, while most of the larger, more dominant species are circumpolar in their ranges. Many of these animals are also found in more southerly, temperate regions, and are therefore not restricted only to the Arctic. Their distributions and population densities vary considerably even within their known ranges, as determined by local climate, habitat structure, regional plant communities, available prey, predation pressures, etc. 

The mammalian fauna in Svalbard, because of its isolation, is extremely restricted...much more so than continental regions. The most commonly sighted terrestrial mammal in Svalbard is the reindeer. Like all the members of the order Artiodactyla (which contains species as diverse as hippopotami, pigs, camels, giraffes, deer, antelope, cattle, sheep, and goats), reindeer have an even number of toes on each foot. The artiodactyls are often referred to as "the even toed, hoofed mammals", and in most cases the weight of the body is carried on the middle two toes, which are encased in pointed hooves. Reindeer, as the name implies, are members of the deer family. They are fast runners, and they have specialized teeth for cutting and grinding vegetation. The food is digested in a complex, fourchambered stomach (like most artiodactyls) with the aid of symbiotic microorganisms. It is interesting that many of the artiodactyls have no upper incisor teeth, but instead use their tough tongue and lips to tear grass from the ground, or strip leaves from trees and bushes. 

There are several races of this deer found throughout the far north, but all are now considered conspecific. The species is known as the reindeer in Eurasia (including Svalbard), but it is called caribou in North America. Like typical deer, they have long heads, longs legs, and short tails, but the most obvious characteristic is the large set of antlers which are grown and shed in annual cycles by the males. In Autumn, the males go through a rutting season during which they use their antlers to great avail in fighting for dominance to establish mating rites. This is the only species in which both the male and female have antlers, although those of the female are much smaller. The antlers are unique in that they are asymmetrical, and the lowest, forwardprojecting tine is also branched. 

The coloration varies greatly among the races, from almost white, to gray, to brown, to almost black. The fur is noteworthy in that the long body hairs are hollow…like tiny plastic drinking straws. This amazing design greatly enhances the insulative qualities of the winter fur, but produces a rather coarse pelt. During the breeding season, the males gather and maintain harems consisting of 10 to 50 females. The female generally gives birth to single young, which is precocious and able to stand and run very soon after parturition. During the rest of the year, they usually congregate in loosely structured small bands. Reindeer are diurnal animals and feed on a great variety of plants, but they are primarily browsers. They supplement their diets with grasses in the Summer, and in Winter they have to use their hooves to scrape away the snow to get at lichens.

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