Rangifer tarandus

Caribou undertake the longest land migration in North America.

Barren ground caribou in interior Alaska.

By Cara Byington

Reindeer versus caribou: What's the difference? Not much, actually…until you get to conserving them:

  • Both animals are migratory and highly adapted to cold weather, with specialized coats and hooves.
  • They're both considered the same species: Rangifer tarandus.
  • The differences between them are primarily in size (caribou are bigger); location (North America for caribou, Scandinavia and Russia for reindeer); domestication (reindeer are one of the oldest domesticated species in the world); and…well, press coverage.

But unlike domesticated reindeer, caribou face continuing challenges to their survival in the wild. Because they are wide-ranging and can be highly sensitive to alterations in their habitat, caribou are particularly vulnerable to the potential effects of climate change and other disruptions, such as oil and gas mining.

To help meet these challenges, The Nature Conservancy works with partners in Alaska and Canada to protect caribou habitat and migration corridors as well as to study how climate change might be affecting caribou and other Arctic animals. Read below for more details on this important effort to help a beloved creature.

Why Do Reindeer Get All the Glory?

From Canada to Alaska to Russia to Finland, caribou and reindeer have provided the raw materials for human survival — meat for food, hides for clothing and shelter, bone for weapons and tools — for as long as people have lived in remote northern lands.

So if reindeer and caribou are so similar, why do reindeer get all the glory come the holidays? One word: marketing.

Reindeer get much better press because of that famous Clement C. Moore poem, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." And when Rudolph starred in a Montgomery Ward advertisement in 1939, reindeer were finally and officially enshrined as the last word in speedy round-the-world winter travel.

But what about their North American cousins? At first glance, caribou would seem much more suited to the strenuous task of hauling a large, jolly man and his sleigh full of presents across seven continents in less than 24 hours:

  • Caribou are, after all, very large deer.
  • An adult caribou stands about three and a half feet tall at the shoulder.
  • And males can weigh as much as 600 pounds.

In fact, caribou would be perfect sleigh-pullers except for one thing: They aren’t domesticated.
Unlike the native peoples of Europe and Asia who first herded reindeer, there is no record that the natives of North America ever domesticated caribou.

But considering that caribou undertake the longest land migration in North America, they probably wish they could fly.

The Nature Conservancy and Caribou

But how can caribou survive in a rapidly changing Arctic? Here's how the Conservancy is addressing threats to this majestic creature:

  • We're partnering with the University of Alaska–Fairbanks to help assess how caribou and other species might adapt to climate change. This scientific partnership is studying how changing temperatures could affect Arctic Alaska. As environmental conditions shift, scientists want to learn more about how caribou and other Arctic animals might respond.
    In particular, scientists are concerned about the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd. These 58,000 caribou travel long distances throughout the year — but every June, the entire herd congregates north of Teshekpuk Lake to bear their calves and seek relief from insects. If conditions in this special place change, it will likely have profound effects throughout the entire life cycle of the herd.
  • In Canada, the Conservancy is working with partners in the Northwest Territories to create a network of protected areas that would preserve habitat and historic migration routes for caribou. As demand for Canada’s natural resources increases, the Conservancy and its partners are working with governments and First Nations to find ways to balance the needs of economies and ecosystems.
    For the First Nations of Canada’s boreal forest, few species are as intrinsic to their cultures as woodland caribou — a species that is increasingly threatened by development and habitat loss. The continued loss of caribou harms not only the health of the forest ecosystems where they live, but also irreparably damages the cultural foundations of the First Nations who have woven this iconic species into their lives and ceremonies for hundreds of generations.

Cara Byington is a senior conservation writer at The Nature Conservancy.