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North American Caribou

In Europe, the Caribou is referred to as Reindeer, however in Alaska and Canada only the semi-domesticated form is referred to as Reindeer. The animal retains the Caribou title where wild populations exist throughout North America & has been heavily relied on by humans for subsistence and to a lesser extent as a means of travel over a very long period of time. The name Caribou comes from the Micmac Indian word “xalibu” meaning “the pawer” or “the scratcher”.

The human Caribou relationship spans millennia, particularly, the hunting of Caribou which has an extensive history and “may well be the species of single greatest importance in the entire anthropological literature on hunting.” ((Banfield 1961)Ernest S. Burch Jr. (1972)). The prehistoric Caribou was relied upon by Paleo-Indians while also being predated upon by the likes of Saber tooth tigers during the last Ice age, their presence on the landscape is important and deserves the upmost attention.

North American Caribou

The species’ taxonomic name, Rangifer Tarandus, was defined by Carl Linnaeus in 1758. Based on Banfield’s often cited “A Revision of the Reindeer and Caribou, Genus Rangifer”. In 2005, an analysis of mtDNA found differences between the Caribou from Newfoundland, Labrador, southwestern Canada, and southeastern Canada, but maintained all in R. t. Caribou (Cronin, M. A.; MacNeil, M. D.; Patton, J. C. (2005). “Variation in Mitochondrial DNA and Microsatellite DNA in Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in North America”).

Some recent authorities have considered them all valid, even suggesting that they are quite distinct. For instance, Geist has suggested that the “true woodland Caribou, the uniformly dark, small-maned type with the frontally emphasised, flat-beamed antlers”, which is “scattered thinly along the southern rim of North American Caribou distribution” and therefore, has been incorrectly classified. He goes so far as to say that the “true woodland Caribou is very rare, in very great difficulties and requires the most urgent of attention.”

Mallory and Hillis argued that “Although the taxonomic designations reflect evolutionary events, they do not appear to reflect current ecological conditions. In numerous instances, populations of the same subspecies have evolved different demographic and behavioural adaptations, while populations from separate subspecies have evolved similar demographic and behavioural patterns. “Understanding ecotype in relation to existing ecological constraints and releases may be more important than the taxonomic relationships between populations.” (Mallory, F. F.; Hillis, T. L. (1998). “Demographic characteristics of circumpolar Caribou populations: Ecotypes, ecological constraints, releases, and population dynamics”). This statement supports that animals of differing phenotypes meaning a set of observable characteristics or traits can be as a result of their ecotype or environment.

North American Caribou

Mammal Species of the World recognises fourteen subspecies within the genus, two of which are extinct. Of those, there are seven inhabiting North America with one extinct:

• Labrador Caribou (R. t. Caboti)
• Woodland Caribou, Boreal Woodland Caribou, migratory Woodland Caribou & Mountain Woodland Caribou (R. t. Caribou)
• Porcupine or Grants Caribou (R. t. Granti)
• Barren-ground Caribou (R. t. Groenlandicus)
• Osborne’s Caribou (R. t. Osborni)
• Peary Caribou (R. t. Pearyi)
• Newfoundland/Woodland Caribou (R. t. Terraenovae)
• Queen Charlotte Islands Caribou or Dawson’s Caribou (R. t. Dawsoni) – Extinct

The Caribou is a species of Cervidae family, grouping them as a deer. With circumpolar distribution, the Caribou is native to the Arctic, sub-Arctic, tundra, boreal, and mountainous regions of northern Europe, Siberia, and North America. This includes both sedentary and migratory populations. The male of the species is referred to as a “Bull”, while the female a “Cow”. Due to the Caribou distribution, Caribou have developed adaptations for metabolic efficiency during warmer months as well as during colder months. The body composition of the animal varies highly with the seasons. Caribou mate in late September to early November and the gestation period is about 228–234 days.

Of particular interest is the body composition and diet of breeding and non-breeding females between seasons. Breeding females have more body mass than non-breeding females between the months of March and September with a difference of around 10 kilograms. Body mass of both breeding and non-breeding females peaks in September. During the months of March through April, breeding females have more fat mass than the non-breeding females with a difference of almost 3 kilograms.

The environmental variations play a large part in Caribou nutrition, as winter nutrition is crucial to adult and neonatal survival rates. Lichens are a staple during the winter months as they are a readily available food source, which reduces the reliance on stored body reserves. Although lichens are high in carbohydrates, it is lacking in protein that vascular plants provide. The amount of lichen in the Caribous’ diet decreases in latitude of home range.

Depending on definition across North America, the antler structure of the Bull is complicated and comprises of many shapes and styles. The Caribou is the only member of the deer family where the female can carry antlers and although females can also carry antlers they are typically much smaller than the males, however they do typically carry them for longer. A new theory, proposed by Ted Stankowich of the University of Massachusetts and Tim Caro of the University of California at Davis, suggests that females benefit from having horns or antlers if they are of a large enough body size or live in a habitat that makes it hard for them to hide. The more conspicuous the female, the more benefit they gain from horns or antlers, which would be needed for defence against predators. This is also extended into a possible benefit of competing with members of their own species for grazing spots, which are often limited.

North American Caribou

Hunters refer to antler characteristic descriptors such as the “C” shape of the antler, the spread, over all points, which in some areas denotes the ability to harvest a bull based on a point requirement. With overall appearance of weight in the antlers being desirable and “shovels,” being the near vertical flattened antler which protrudes forward in place of the traditional brow tine. The Mountain Caribou generally holds the larger (heavier) antlers, although are often surpassed by Barren-ground Caribou in overall antler size while the Woodland Caribou would have the smallest but regularly develops many more points. The antlers are typically pale in colour and smooth with lack of traditional strong pearling.

Caribou pelage vary in colour across their range and will often change with the seasons. Colour variations can go from dark chocolate, almost black to white and often the animal will carry a grey to almost white nose and front portion of lip. The coat in general has two layers: a dense wool like undercoat and longer-haired overcoat consisting of hollow, air-filled hairs. In 1913 Dugmore noted how the woodland caribou swim so high out of the water, unlike any other mammal, because their hollow, “air-filled, quill-like hair” which acts as a “life jacket.” (Dugmore, Arthur Radclyffe (1913), The romance of the Newfoundland caribou)

The Caribou use a specific communication method, often referred to as “clicking”. The clicking noise is caused by small tendons slipping over bone protuberances (sesamoid bones) in their feet or knees. The sounds can be audible from several hundred metres away. The frequency of the clicks is one of a range of signals that establish relative positions on a dominance scale among Caribou. “Specifically, loud knee-clicking is discovered to be an honest signal of body size, providing an exceptional example of the potential for non-vocal acoustic communication in mammals”. The Caribou hoof is especially adapted to their eco system. The foot contains four “toes” that have the ability to spread, acting as snow shoes and although the centre of the toes are pad like, the outer edge of the foot is hard and sharp which allows the animal to dig or “paw” at the ground for food, which earned them the native name “the pawer”. The foot is well suited to traveling in water, snow, muskeg and tundra alike. Caribou are gregarious and herd size varies greatly in different geographic region. In North America, the Caribou is found in Canada and Alaska, and until recently the northern conterminous USA from Washington to Maine. In the 19th century, the animal was apparently still present in southern Idaho( Gunn, A. (2016). “Rangifer tarandus”)

Caribou are ruminants, having a four-chambered stomach. They mainly eat lichens in winter, especially reindeer lichen. The Caribou are the only large mammal able to metabolise lichen owing to specialised bacteria in their gut. They are also known eat the leaves of willows and birches, as well as sedges and grasses.

North American Caribou

Some populations of North American Caribou, for example the Barren-ground Caribou subspecies and some Woodland Caribou in Ungava and Labrador, migrate the farthest of any terrestrial mammal, travelling up to 5,000 km a year, and covering 1,000,000 km2 . Other North American populations such as the Boreal woodland Caribou for example, are largely sedentary.
Wild Caribou are still hunted in North America by a wide variety of people for various purposes. In the traditional lifestyle of the Inuit people, the Northern First Nations people and the Alaska Natives, Caribou is an important source of food, clothing, shelter and tools. The Caribou Inuit are inland-dwelling Inuit in present-day Nunavut’s Keewatin Region, Canada, now known as the Kivalliq Region. They subsist on Caribou year-round, eating dried Caribou meat in the winter others such as the Ihalmiut are nomadic Caribou Inuit that followed the Qamanirjuaq Barren-ground Caribou herd.

In Helge Ingstand masterpiece “The Land of Feast and Famine”, where he spent several years (1926-1930) subsisting in the North West Territories, he witnessed the vital role caribou played in the life of the Chipewyan. The “Caribou-Eaters”, “A name they had received because their lives were utterly dependant on the Caribou. At that time there were still great numbers – probably several hundred thousand – of Caribou in the North West Territories. But the migrations of the Caribou herds are mysterious. The Indians have a saying: “They are like ghosts; they come from nowhere, fill up all the land, then disappear” (Helge, Ingstad. The Land of Feast and Famine. 1931)

He goes on to say that when the Caribou filled the land, the trappers and Indians were filled with joy; but when the animals inevitably disappeared again, hunger and famine followed often resulting in starvation of these people of the land.

More recent Caribou, or Reindeer in this instance representations of human interaction with the animal are evident around the world in the children’s fictional character, Santa Claus. Originally based on the 280 A.D. monk Saint, St. Nicolas. The use of Reindeer by Santa is believed to be fictionalised in an anonymously published poem “A Visit From St Nicholas” in 1823 which was latter popularised in Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” where Moore’s ambitious poem describes Santa’s mode of transport as being a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer.

Overall, the Caribou herds have undergone hardships, the ICUN lists the Caribou as Vulnerable. Some subspecies are increasingly rare and one is designated as extinct, the Queen Charlotte Islands Caribou of Canada. Historically, the range of the boreal woodland Caribou covered more than half of Canada (“Population Critical: How are Caribou Faring?”. Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and The David Suzuki Foundation. December 2013). In the northern states in the U.S. Woodland Caribou have disappeared from most of their original southern range and were designated as threatened in 2002 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Environment Canada reported in 2011 that there were approximately 34,000 boreal woodland Caribou in 51 ranges remaining in Canada.

Further death by a thousand cuts rears its head in the form of the splitting of herds into satellite herds. The South Selkirk herd were once part of a larger population of southern mountain Caribou whose habitat spanned much of the Pacific North-west. But human activity – from logging to recreational activities such as snowmobiling – has forced the population to break off into small herds. By 2009, the Selkirk herd was estimated to have 50 members, living in an ecosystem that stretched from British Columbia into Washington and Idaho. Seven years later that number had dwindled to 12; in early 2019 biologists captured what they believe to be the last Mountain Caribou of the Selkriks herd which freely traversed the US/Canadian border, the last of the Caribou to enter or exist in the lower 48, in hopes to restore the animal with two others from another troubled herd into a more stable group within Canada. Reports suggest that it is unknown if any animals remain in this herds home range at this time.

A variety of predators readily exploit Caribou as a resource, which contributes to the decline of populations (Woodland caribou boreal population – biology, SARA, October 2014). This includes unregulated hunting of some populations.

North American Caribou

Interestingly, Golden eagles prey on calves and are the most prolific hunter on the calving grounds. Wolverines will take newborn calves or birthing cows, as well as sick or weak adults.
Brown bears and polar bears (where present) prey on Caribou of all ages, but like the wolverines they are most likely to attack weaker animals, such as calves and sick animals, since healthy Caribou can, at times outpace a bear. The grey wolf is the most effective natural predator of adult reindeer and sometimes takes large numbers, especially during the winter. Some wolf packs as well as individual grizzly bears in Canada may follow and live off of a particular Caribou herd year round.

Additionally, as carrion, Caribou may be scavenged opportunistically by smaller animals such as foxes, hawks and ravens.

Bloodsucking insects, such as mosquitoes (Culicidae), black flies (Simuliidae), and botflies and deer botflies (Oestridae), specifically, the Caribou warble fly (Hypoderma tarandi) and the reindeer nose botfly (Cephenemyia trompe), are a plague to Caribou during the summer and can cause enough stress to inhibit feeding and calving. An adult Caribou will lose up to about a litre of blood to biting insects for every week it spends in the tundra (Hoare, Ben (2009). Animal Migration. London: Natural History Museum). The population numbers of some of these predators is influenced by the migration of Caribou. Pestering insects keep Caribou on the move searching for windy areas like hilltops and mountain ridges, rock reefs, lakeshore and forest openings, or snow patches that offer respite. Gathering in large herds is another strategy that Caribou use to block insects. As an example, in Alaska particularly, the warble fly lay parasitic larvae on the hair of the caribou’s legs and lower body. The eggs hatch into larvae which penetrate the skin and travel to the back area of the Caribou which can be up to an inch long, living there until summer until such time that they break through the skin and drop to the ground.

North American Caribou

Caribou hunting opportunities are varied across North America depending on subspecies being pursued. Migration hunts are available as are hunting what would be referred to as resident herds using varying methods of transport from helicopter, boat, horses or backpack style hunting.

Woodland Caribou in Newfoundland can be an affordable hunt and paired with the Moose provides an adventure into the boggy home of the Viking. Mountain Caribou in British Columbia is often referred to as the poor man’s Stone sheep hunt which can be paired with other species and still provide the quintessential North American hunting experience. Draw opportunities in Alaska are varied, typically offering backpack or horse supported hunts or hunting the migration of herds of Caribou in the foothills which allows for selectiveness of passing animals over many days or weeks.

Whatever the choice, the Caribou is steeped in history and folklore; the simple pleasure of sharing the tundra with these magnificent animals from the Ice age is truly magnificent.

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