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Christmas tradition depicts Santa Claus flying through the night sky on Christmas Eve in his parcel-laden sleigh pulled by a herd of reindeer.  Now, neither humans nor reindeer – nor indeed sleighs – have the ability to fly as far as our current knowledge tells us.  Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) can, however, run nearly as fast as horses and cover distances of up to 50 km a day.  They can also leap six feet into the air and glide.

Are there any more facts about reindeer that may help us contemplate their potential to fly?  It seems that Santa might have encouraged the reindeer to the sky by playing on their penchant for cooler temperatures.  On hot days, reindeer will migrate vertically towards patches of snow and then later return to the grass valleys under the midnight sun.  Their coats are filled with air, much like hot-air balloons, principally to keep them well-insulated but perhaps also to facilitate upward flotation?  And, while we must wait for evidence to accumulate about the ability of a reindeer nose to turn red, as in the case of Rudolph, it seems that reindeer eyes can and do change colour.  Following seasonal variations, their golden summer eyes change to a deep blue colour in winter, allowing the lower levels of available light to be scattered to optimize vision.

Although the legend of the reindeer-pulled sleigh was first described by an American poet in the early 1800s, the idea may have originated in the hallucinations of ancient Sami shamans who drank the urine of reindeer who had fed on hallucinogenic mushrooms. When American writer, Robert May, added Rudolph to the story, he may have done his research.  It turns out that often reindeer herds do follow one single adult. Given that their reproductive strategies involve one male having a harem of females, this makes sense seeing as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen are all likely to be females, because only females retain their antlers in winter.

Known as the caribou in North America, reindeer enjoy a herbivorous diet (except for the odd lemming) and females tend to live the longest, up to about 15 years. Providers of food, shelter and clothing, native peoples have used reindeer for hundreds of thousands of years and, although still found across much of their former Northern range, numbers have declined so rapidly in recent times that some sub-species are on the brink of extinction and the IUCN now lists the reindeer as ‘vulnerable’.  Once, an awe-inspiring million-strong herd roamed the Siberian tundra in Russia; now there are fewer than three million adult individuals globally. 

Sadly, it seems, their kind cannot fly, as illustrated when hundreds of deer were seen jumping from a highway bridge in Idaho in the early 2000s.  Presumably, they did not realise that they would drop to their deaths but were merely trying to escape the noise of the traffic on the bridge.  The happy ending to this story is that a wildlife underpass was built for these animals so that they could avoid using the bridge and coming into such close contact with humans.  But humankind will have to work harder to slow the frighteningly rapid decline of Santa’s hairy helpers.

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