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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.