Are caribou different from reindeer? Tis the season to ask and it just so happens I that I asked the very same question after seeing a reindeer in a display (which I am sure the reindeer was not totally on board with) for children. It looked suspiciously like a caribou, but not quite.
While most of the scientific community has agreed for decades that caribou and reindeer are the same animal and in fact share the same name (Rangifer tarandus) the powers that be have decided, thanks to birth of DNA studies, there is a genetic difference between the North American Caribou and the European Reindeer.
The Reindeer is a domestic close cousin of the Caribou and has been domestic for 2000 years or more depending on what study one reads where it is used as pack animals among other things. Stockier with heavier antlers (both sexes), shorter legged and more ‘stationary’ than Caribou it does not migrate the hundreds of miles of the Caribou, and has different breeding patterns than the Caribou.
In Inuktitut (the language if the Inuit people, indigenous nations of the arctic) Tuktu or Caribou means ‘the one who paws’ or ‘scratcher’ which reflects the way they plow the arctic snows to reach the lichens buried underneath for winter feed and is a true wild animal.
But the real question is: Which one of them flies?
Sadly, the larger, majestic caribou of the north does not fly. Which makes sense because one would wonder why they would walk hundreds of miles almost continuously if they could just fly to their destination?
So that leaves the reindeer. We know now that reindeer have a bit different DNA than their wild cousins…and it is one of these genes that allows for the flying. But it is not always activated or of course, reindeer would be flying about like jetliners all over Europe.
After much research it has been discovered that this particular gene is found only in a small portion of the population of reindeer. And it lays dormant until deep December when the Spirit of Christmas spreads her magic to humanity, sprouting smiles and joy to be shared in generous proportions with all living things. When we gather our loved ones about us and wish the world to share in the peace, joy and blessings we remember have always been ours to hold, no matter the season.
Then the reindeer fly. And our hearts fly with them.