Monday, December 22, 2008

Animal of the Week -- December 22, 2008

If you have ever wondered why Santa, living somewhere around the North Pole, didn't turn to huskies to pull his sleigh, or maybe polar bears, or musk ox, all you need to know that all those animals have morbid fear of heights; they'd be no good -- seriously, if you've ever tried to talk a musk ox down a steep flight of stairs, you'll know what I'm talking about. But Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, and Blixem, aided by a little Christmas magic, merrily take to the sky to distribute presents to all the kiddywinks who have been good throughout the year.

Reindeer, or caribou as they are known in North America, are the archetypal herbivore of the Arctic distributed from Norway to Norway all the way around wherever there is land and a smattering of lichen. With their large noses for warming ingoing air and collecting precious water from exhaled air, their thick double coats that are so well insulated the animals can lie on snow without causing it to melt, and their feet that change with the season to provide traction on ice in the winter and mud in the summer, no animals could be better suited to the snow spangled taiga forest of Siberia or the open frozen tundra of Canada.

Throughout Eurasia, native peoples of the high arctic have commonly domesticated, or partly domesticated reindeer, and the appearance of the animals in cave paintings suggests that for millenia reindeer have been important to humans as a source of food and materials for clothing and food. Now, only a few truly wild populations remain in Europe, but huge wild herds remain in Canada and the US. Across their range there are various subspecies: the small Svalbard reindeer (R. tarandus platyrhynchus), European wild reindeer (R. tarandus fennicus), and the porcupine caribou (R. tarandus granti). Perhaps the best known subspecies is R. tarandus rufinostris.

Reindeer mostly eat lichen,but they also browse on shrubs and, in the autumn, they have a particular fondness for mushrooms. Some reindeer herders exploit the deer's love of mushrooms -- after feeding their herds with fly agarics (fat red mushrooms with white spots), the herders drink the reindeers urine which contains hallucinogenic chemicals from the mushroom. Strangely, drinking reindeer wizz makes the herders less sick than would eating the mushrooms themselves. Suddenly, the origins of the idea of a jolly fat man clad in red and white traversing the heavens on a sleigh pulled by flying deer start to become clear.

Merry Chrimble One and All

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