Reindeer or Caribou?

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Can the name Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer be used interchangeably with Rudolph the Red Nosed Caribou? Google the words "reindeer" and "caribou" together and you'll see that they are often used to refer to the same animal.

(Grazing reindeer/caribou; Credit- Dean Biggins, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In this week's Discovery News story concerning Christmas trees and reindeer, I use both words, noting that reindeer are called "caribou" in North America. The longer explanation may be much more complex, however.

Cornell University conservation scientist Jeff Wells told me that "the taxonomy of caribou is in flux as more detailed genetic analysis continues, but it is clear there are at least two (possibly more) evolutionary lineages represented in North American caribou."

He explained that one represents a lineage that was pushed south during the last glaciations and survived in what is now the United States. The other survived either in northern Asia or in a western North American refuge before it colonized, or recolonized, the Arctic regions of North America. Animal experts refer to this latter group as the "migratory barren-ground form." Not as catchy as "reindeer," but more descriptive.

The bottom line is that some animals called "caribou" now may be what people in Finland and other countries refer to as reindeer, and some may not. There may even be yet another species in the mix. Additional research will hopefully solve the present puzzle.

There's a serious aspect to such research beyond word play, as some reindeer/caribou herds are nearing extinction, while others are doing OK.

"The largely non-migratory woodland caribou and mountain caribou forms are classified as threatened, though some herds are classified as endangered and some as 'special concern,'" Wells explained.

More accurate taxonomy will help to better identify the animals of highest priority for conservation. For now, though, unless you are a proper name purist, Rudolph the Red Nosed Caribou works just as well as his better known name.