An Ultimate Ungulate Fact SheetReturn to Artiodactyla

Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Chordata
    Class: Mammalia
      Order: Artiodactyla
        Family: Cervidae
          Subfamily: Capreolinae
            Genus: Rangifer

Rangifer tarandus

      Caribou, Reindeer


Rangifer tarandus [Linnaeus, 1758].  
Citation: Syst. Nat., 10th ed., 1:67.
Type locality: Sweden, Alpine Lapland (domesticated stock).

Click on the pictures above for a larger view of the photographs

General Characteristics

Body Length: 120-220 cm / 4-7.3 ft.
Shoulder Height: 87-140 cm / 2.9-4.6 ft.
Tail Length: 7-21 cm / 2.8-8.4 in.
Weight: 60-318 kg / 132-700 lb.

The double-layered coat is made of two layers: a guard coat made of straight, tubular hairs and a wooly undercoat.  Coloration is quite variable, ranging from pure white through tan to dark brownish gray, with the undersides and rump lighter.  The legs are generally dark , as is a band which runs along the lower torso.  There is a small dewlap covered with long white hair along the throat, while the face is generally darker.  Unlike many deer species, caribou calves are born without spots.  The hoofs are very large and form a nearly circular print - functioning a snowshoes to keep the animal from sinking in the snow.  The complex antler are found in both sexes, with a long, sweeping rear beams and forward projecting brow tines which may be palmated, forming a shovel-like projection.  Antler length in females is 23-50 cm / 9-20 inches, while in males they can grow to be 130 cm / 52 inches long, weighing up to 15 kg / 33 lb.

Ontogeny and Reproduction

Gestation Period: 228 days.
Young per Birth: 1
Weaning: At about 6 months.
Sexual Maturity: 2.5 years.
Life span: Up to 20 years.

Most mating occurs in October, with the births occurring in lat May and early June.  Born for speed, a caribou calf can follow its mother within one hour of birth, and can outrun a human after only one day!

Ecology and Behavior

A highly nomadic species, caribou may travel 5,000 km / 3,000 miles in a year, the longest documented movements of any terrestrial mammal.  In addition, most populations undertake extensive migrations in the spring and fall, travelling.  During these migrations, herds move at a rate of 19-55 kilometers / 11-33 miles per day.  The caribou's maximum running speed is 60-80 kmph / 36-48 mph.  When walking, a tendon in the foot slips over a bone producing a clicking sound.  Amplified due to numbers, a migrating herd of caribou sounds like a bunch of castanets gone crazy!  Caribou are excellent swimmers, and will readily cross large rivers or lakes.  When swimming, adults can maintain a speed of 6.5 kpmh / 4 mph, and when pressed can swim at 10 kmph / 6 mph.  The sense of smell is the most heavily relied upon to find food and located danger, as the senses of sight and hearing are not well developed.  During winter, caribou paw through the snow to reach the vegetation hidden beneath.  Vocalizations include an alarmed snort, a bawl, and a grunting roar (made by rutting males).  Population densities are very sparse - generally 0.5 animals per square kilometer of suitable habitat.  However, during the migration period, concentrations may exceed 19,000 animals per square kilometer!

Family group: Large regional herds of 50,000-500,000 animals which band together during the spring, composed although this herd is composed of generally single-sex subgroups with 10-1,000 individuals.
Diet: Leaves, herbs, lichens, sedges, fungi.
Main Predators: Large predators, mainly bears and wolves.


Arctic tundra and adjacent boreal forest.

Range Map (Compiled from Burt and Grossenheider, 1976; Whitehead, 1993)

Conservation Status

Although a common species as a whole, the Peary race, R. t. pearyi is classified as endangered by the IUCN (1996).


The only deer species (or species of anything for that matter) in which both sexes have antlers, the caribou was first described by Linnaeus in 1758.  The reindeer is thought to have first been tended by humans 3,000 years ago, and still remains the only deer to have gained widespread domesticated status.  Used as beasts of burden and farmed for milk, meat and their hides, reindeer are the pivotal species in the culture of the Sami people.  Currently, there are over 3 million domesticated reindeer spread over northern Eurasia and Alaska.  "Caribou" is the North American name for this deer, while in Europe it is known as the "reindeer".  Contrary to popular belief, they are the same species - and goes to show the difficulties involved with vernacular, or common, names.  

Old French rangier, a reindeer; ferus (Latin) wild, untamed.  Also possibly from ren (Old Swedish) a reindeer; ferus (Latin) wild.  Tarandrus (Latin) an animal of northern countries.

Literature Cited

Burt, W. H., and R. P. Grossenheider.  1976.  A Field Guide to the Mammals of North America North of Mexico, Third Edition.  A Peterson Field Guide.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

Geist, V., and L. Baskin.  1990.  Reindeer (Genus Rangifer).  In Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals. Edited by S. P. Parker. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 242-257.

Nowak, R. M. [editor]. 1991.  Walker's Mammals of the World (Fifth Edition).  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Whitehead, K. G.  1993.  The Whitehead Encyclopedia of Deer.  Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press, Inc.

Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder [editors]. 1993. Mammal Species of the World (Second Edition). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.  Available online at

Return to Artiodactyla

© Brent Huffman,
All rights reserved.
Questions or comments? Click here