3 AI generated reindeer running toward camera on a snow covered trail

Once again the red-clad fat man has made his annual trek around the world. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracks Santa’s journey every year and has been doing so since 1955. Volunteers even staff a hotline at the NTS Operations Center fielding over 100,000 calls and 10,000 emails in a 24-hour period. 

Santa takes off from his home base at the North Pole starting at the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean and travels west. According to NORAD, the sleigh weighs 75,000 gd (gumdrops) at takeoff. Add to this 60,000 tons of presents and 260 lbs of Claus. That’s a hefty holiday load! 

What propels this wonder around the world? A cervid – 9 of them.

screenshot of NORAD Santa Tracker

Yes, Santa’s sleigh is run on reindeer power! Of course, everyone knows this. And some of you may even know that they are all FEMALE. That’s right. Santa depends on the ladies to get him to the chimney on time. 

female reindeer standing in snow looking at camera
Image by Наталья Коллегова from Pixabay

How do we know this? Because in every rendition of the legend that is Santa, his magic reindeer have antlers. Reindeer or caribou (Rangifer tarandus) are the only extant species of deer in which females grow antlers. Male reindeer lose their antlers in the fall while females retain them until the spring. However in every tale, Santa’s reindeer are referred to as he/him/his but that is a story for another day. 

I never thought much about why female reindeer keep their antlers through winter or even why they have them but in researching another antler post (insert eye roll here), I stumbled upon the theory. Retaining antlers through the winter is tough. They are heavy and expensive to carry especially when there isn’t much around in the way of food at the North Pole. Several studies have also found that male cervids with high social ranking tend to cast their antlers first ridding themselves of the load sooner rather than later. 

Why would females taxed by pregnancy and stressed by winter carry the burden of antlers as well? Female reindeer or caribou shed their antlers on calving grounds in the spring. What a relief dropping a calf and a set of antlers at the same time must be! 

Mother Nature never does anything without a reason and evolution tells us there must be a benefit.

John G. Millais explored and hunted caribou throughout Newfoundland. He published a book in 1907. In it he noted that “females chewed the points of every old horn they come across.” 

Those antlers are not a burden but a basin filled with calcium and phosphorus needed for lactation. Antlers are the vehicle used to carry critical minerals with them when they need them the most.

Female caribou with calve in herd on tundra
Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay

In the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, over 1,300 antlers and bones were surveyed on the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Caribou gnawing was present on ~90% of the antlers but less than 10% of the bones. They are using them to offset the lack of calcium and phosphorus in their spring and summer forage. Packing what they need and bringing it with them – does it get any more “mom” than that? This source of calcium and phosphorus in the form of shed antlers that cover calving grounds may serve to maintain calving ground fidelity as well. Aaaa-mazing!

Santa chose wisely. Female reindeer are expert packers and can get from Point A to Point B carrying everything they need with them. It just adds to the legend of those Sleigh Superstars! 

-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PA Game Commission

Feature Image by Jeanette Atherton from Pixabay

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