Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2007, 9:36 pm
Rudolph the red-nosed (pregnant, female) caribou
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"Come on, you cows, let's hit the next roof!"
OK, so this isn't close to what Santa Claus really shouted to his eight tiny reindeer. But, putting all the magic and mystery of Christmas aside, he certainly could have.
As anyone who knows anything about reindeer will tell you -- and that someone would be Donna Naughton, a researcher at the Canadian Museum of Nature who is writing a book on all animals Canadian ...
"Santa's sleigh was pulled by cows," she said, "meaning female reindeer or caribous."
And if Dasher, Dancer, Vixen and all the rest had been real reindeer -- rather than the magical Christmas reindeer -- they probably would have been pregnant.
Naughton knows this because:
All male caribou and reindeer (for the record, reindeer are domesticated caribou) drop their antlers by mid-November. So Santa's antlered sleigh-pullers couldn't be boys.
Female caribou and reindeer -- the only female deer that possess antlers -- typically are pregnant by mid-November. They give birth to a single calf in late May or June.
So odds are that Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen were carrying little Christmas packages of their own.
Eight tiny reindeer?
And if Clement C. Moore's 1822 poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas," is correct and Santa's reindeer are "tiny," they probably wouldn't have been brown, as in most illustrations. They would have been white.
That's because, in general, the most well-known species of caribou and reindeer -- such as Canada's woodland caribou and barren-ground caribou or the mountain reindeer of Northern Europe -- are large and brownish.
But the tiniest reindeer on Earth are the short, stubby-legged Svalbard reindeer of Norway and the graceful Peary caribou of the Canadian arctic. Both have white coats in the winter.
But Noughton said a Svalbard reindeer "looks like a miniature pony." Not real Christmas-y.
More rapid than eagles
If Santa chose any reindeer, Noughton said, it most likely would be the Peary caribou. Currently on Canada's endangered species list, the Peary caribou (named for Arctic explorer Adm. Robert Peary) live closer to the North Pole than any other caribou or reindeer.
And to watch them run, it would be easy to imagine them flying.
"Caribous are fantastic," Noughton said. "Pearys have a way of striding that looks like they're almost floating. I can see why Santa chose caribous."
Unlike the wild caribous of Canada and the arctic, the reindeer of Northern Europe and Northern Asia have been domesticated and bred for centuries to be used for meat, milk and, indeed, to pull sleighs.
Russell and Elizabeth Bumgarner, who own the Reindeer Lane Christmas Tree Farm in Trimble, Mo., keep what they call four "miniature reindeer" on their 23 acres. All males, they are neither reindeer nor caribou, Bumgarner said. They're sika deer -- tiny, elegant deer less than 4-feet-tall with long, arching antlers. Related to elk, they are native to the forests of East Asia.
"You can't domesticate these guys," Bumgarner said. "They have a will of their own. They're high-spirited. I swear they can fly."
Such a clatter
Speaking of flying: Remember the line from the song, "Up on the Housetop" in which the reindeer paws go "click, click, click" before Old St. Nick goes down through the chimney?
Curt Gindlesperger, who cares for six male reindeer at the Cleveland Metropark Zoo, says the lyric is more than a rhyme. It makes biological reindeer sense.
"They have a tendon on the back of their feet that click when they walk," he said. "You can hear it."
Come this Christmas Eve night, maybe you will.