12 things you never knew about reindeer

The facts about Santa's helpers – the legend and the reality

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) adult female, antlers in velvet, walking across upland moor, Cairngorms, Scotland, UK, August.

1 Meet McRudolf

Britain’s only herd of reindeer live in the Cairngorm Mountains – Britain’s version of the Arctic. The first deer in the herd were brought from Scandinavia in 1952. Picture: Getty Images

The 1823 illustrations popularised the idea that Santa’s sled is pulled by flying reindeer. Picture: Getty Images

2 Santa’s helpers

Reindeer were first associated with Santa Claus in a poem published by New York printer William Gilley in 1821: Old Santeclaus with much delight / His reindeer drives this frosty night. / O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow, / To bring his yearly gifts to you. Two years later, Clement Clarke Moore’s better known poem, “T’was the Night Before Christmas”, featuring eight flying reindeer.

texture of the reindeer's fur closeup
A reindeer’s dense fur has about 1,300 hairs per square inch. Picture: Getty Images

3 Super-furry animals

Reindeer hairs are hollow – which makes their fur an excellent insulator.

Let me snuggle down in this nice warm spot. Picture: Getty Images

4 A cosy bed

That fur is so effective at conserving body heat that if reindeer lies down, the snow beneath will not melt.

There is evidence that reindeer once roamed Orkney and other parts of the UK. Picture: Getty Images

5 The end of an era

A millennium ago, there were wild reindeer in Scotland: the Vikings are thought to have hunted them. Reindeer became extinct in the UK about 800 years ago because of hunting – but also due to climate change. That’s a couple of hundred years after the last brown bear perished – but long before the last wolf, which is thought to have been killed in 1860.

Reindeer hooves are splayed to spread the animal’s weight. Picture Getty Images

6 Sure-footed

Reindeer have large hooves that act like snowshoes and stop them sinking.

Reindeer keep in touch using sound during a white-out in Iceland. Picture: Getty Images

7 Talking tendons

The tendons in reindeer feet click. This ‘clicking’ sound also allows them to locate each other in whiteout blizzard conditions.


MONGOLIA - 2012/06/27: Deer Stone with petroglyphs in Hustai National Park, Mongolia. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Ancient Deer Stones in Mongolia depict flying reindeer. Picture: Getty Images

8 Origins of a legend

Flying reindeer had long been the subject of shamanic tales amongst nomadic tribes in places like Mongolia and the Altai Mountains. Three-thousand year old standing stones placed above ancient burial grounds have carvings that depict reindeer in flight.

Rentierflechte verzweigte gabelige gruengraue Aeste an Zweig
Reindeer moss is a staple food in winter. Picture: Getty Images

9 Frozen suppers

Reindeer can feed in harsh conditions, surviving in winter by pulling up lichens from underneath the snow, such as reindeer moss, Cladona rangiferina.

A female reindeer and calf pictured in Manitoba, Canada. Picture: Getty Images

10 Female power

Reindeer cows are the only female deer to grow antlers, which they use to defend food in patches of cleared snow.

Another secret weapon in freezing environments: the nose. Picture: Getty Images

11 Not to be sniffed at

The inside of a reindeer nose is an efficient heat exchanger, warming the cold air on its way in against the hot air being breathed out. They have a similar system with the blood in their legs.

You’ll go down in history – Rudolph had an unlikely birth. Picture: Getty Images

12 Birth of a household name

An advertising copyrighter named the most famous reindeer of all. In 1939, Robert L May wrote the words to Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer to promote a chain of department stores; Johnny Marks added the tune.