Tis the season! Lights, tinsel, ornaments, trees and oh those reindeer! Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen…Vixen seems an interesting choice of a name for something associated with Christmas. But okay. And don’t forget Rudolph! Shiny red nose and all.
These are all delightful references to be enjoyed this time of year, but maybe there is a window of opportunity here to explore real reindeer. Fascinating and spectacularly beautiful creatures that actually bear little resemblance to the cartoonish images we are awash in during the holiday season.
There are many images of reindeer available around the holidays, as well as blow up lawn ornaments and versions that are perched on rooftops. So examine these with your child observing what type of animal a reindeer is. But at some point, you may want to look for images on-line of real reindeer.
Here are other deer for comparison: http://www.arkive.org/ft/deer
Or if you are lucky enough to have live reindeer in your local zoo or an animal park, that is even better.
Take a look at these images. Do all reindeer have antlers (some females do in certain populations, but they are smaller)? What does their fur look like, their hooves, tails, and eyes? About how big are they? Remember that antlers fall off each year and are regrown.
Compare and Contrast
What other animals do reindeer look like? Consider differences between reindeer (also known as caribou in North America and a species of deer) and other species of deer, elk, or even other interesting animals like moose or bison.
It would be useful to have images of these animals on index cards or paper on which additional relevant information can be included. Cards can be sorted or classified by the images or for a child who can read, they can choose to sort by factual information. For example, of these animals, which have antlers? Do they all live in cold climates? Do they eat the same things? (Reindeer are ruminants and have stomachs with four chambers. Like sheep, goats and cattle, ruminants chew and swallow plant-based nutrients that ferment in their stomachs. Often this cud is regurgitated and chewed again. Pleasant thought).
Reindeer differ amongst themselves in terms of size and color. If you have more than one image of reindeer, these can be sorted and classified according to categories your child finds interesting. Reindeer adapt physically to the seasons changing the color of their antlers and eyes. If the images are clear enough, eye or antler color could be sorting categories. Even their hooves change to adapt for walking on different terrains. During the spring and summer, they have a spongy pad in the hoof that keeps them from sinking in muddy terrains. In the winter, this spongy pad shrinks leaving a sharper hoof that allows for better traction on snow and ice. Reindeer are also the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light which helps them to see more clearly in the reflected white of the Arctic snow and ice.
Where do you find reindeer or caribou around the world? They live in the arctic or subarctic tundra. Maybe discuss what tundra is and then compare regions on the globe or Northern Europe, Siberia and North America. Find a place referred to as Lapland.
What else do you notice about this map? Where do reindeer NOT live?
What other animals draw or pull sleighs, carriages, toboggans or historic farm tools and how do they differ (think horses, donkeys, and oxen)?
Some reindeer are semi-domesticated or herded like sheep. Why would people raise or keep reindeer herds, or what products might they get? (meat, hides, antlers, and milk).
What predators do reindeer have? (They are hunted in parts of Scandinavia, so man would count as a predator).
Count how many reindeer pull Santa’ s sleigh.
If you have information on reindeer, how much do they weigh (females can weigh 180 – 260 pounds and males or bulls can weigh (351 – 401 pounds)? What else weighs about that much?
How tall are they or what is their height (approximately 33” – 59”)? What else is that tall?
Name other animals that are roughly the same size.
How long are their tails (5.5” – 7.9”)? What else is that length?
Reindeer fossils suggest that they have existed since at least the Pleistocene era. How long ago was this, or how long have these animals been roaming the earth?
Reindeer migrate seasonally which translates into being pretty much constantly on the move. They can travel as much as 3100 miles a year! That is as far as America is wide! What other distances does that represent that your child might be interested in?
Reindeer are good swimmers and can run pretty fast too. They can run as fast as about 44 miles per hour. Take a drive and get a feel for how fast this is by inviting your child to keep an eye on the speedometer (while parents keep an eye on the road).
The average length of a pregnancy for a human is 268 days. For reindeer the gestation period is 227 – 229 days. This is only a difference of about a month! But reindeer in the wild only live for about 15 years (or in captivity about 20 years).
Rig up a system for pulling a “pulk” or toboggan. How does it feel to be a reindeer? Try to pull the sleigh or toboggan on snow and ice. How does it work? What might you need to make this job easier? How can you vary this experiment?
Try and find food during the winter months. Reindeer eat lichen during the winter. Do you have any near where you live? They also eat plants under the snow. Experiment with ways to find those plants.
Visit the library and find books on reindeer.
Read about the Saamis or Samis or other cultures in Lapland of people who herd reindeer. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/11/sami-reindeer-herders/benko-text
Learn how these people raise and herd their reindeer. http://www.reindeerherding.org/herders/sami-norway/
Here are some more photos and interesting facts: http://www.buzzfeed.com/meganm15/facts-about-reindeer-that-will-blow-your-mind#.kxMRNKLJ7
More interesting facts to share over your holiday dinners!