The Norman Transcript

December 24, 2013

How Santa’s reindeer get the job done

By Heath K. Herje
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Christmas is many people’s favorite holiday as family and friends come together and celebrate the season. While many of my articles are related to white-tailed deer management I thought I would put a different twist on this one and discuss Santa’s favorite deer; the reindeer. Dr. Glen Selk, Professor for Oklahoma State University also had some interesting thoughts on reindeer I wanted to share.

Have you ever wondered how Santa’s reindeer make that monumental journey on Christmas Eve?  Let’s look into some key facts about reindeer that may help us understand how they get St. Nick to his appointed rounds worldwide. Historians report that reindeer have been domesticated more than 5,000 years.  Since Santa himself is no spring chicken, we can assume they have worked together for quite a while and should have no trouble finding their way around.  Thus, there is no need to worry about them getting lost. 

How about keeping a reindeer well-fed on their busiest day of the year? Well we know reindeer are ruminants like cattle and thus have four compartments in their stomach.  Santa gets them filled up with hay and lichen before he leaves the North Pole, so they should have plenty of feed stored in the four compartments to make it around the globe.  Also, nutritionists know hay digests more slowly than grain, therefore the big meal that reindeer eat before the journey should last even longer.  

As for drinking water that should be no problem.  In their native range water is frozen much of the year so they are used to getting the moisture they need by eating snow.  So as the sleigh is parked on snowy rooftops, reindeer can take on the moisture they need if they get thirsty. 

How do they keep warm while flying around on Christmas Eve?  The reindeer coat like that of white-tailed and mule deer is made of two layers; an outer layer of long guard hairs and an inner layer of dense, wooly fur.  This under layer of fur is thick and can hold plenty of warm air close to their bodies.  The “blanket” of insulation combining fur and air helps keep them warm in even the coldest climates. Thus as they “skate” around our icy rooftops this Christmas Eve, they won’t be feeling the chill. 

How do reindeer fly?  Well that’s a tougher question, but let’s look at what we do know about their agility. Reindeer are fast capable of reaching speeds of 35 to 40 mph on the ground even though some of them can weigh over 500 pounds.  Perhaps this ground speed helps increase their momentum and improve trajectory as they lift off on Christmas Eve. We also know they are born to run and perhaps even fly as University of Alaska researchers report that a newborn reindeer can easily outrun the fastest graduate student. This quick mobility at such a young age also helps them outrun predators like bears and wolves. 

Next, remember those huge antlers typical of other ungulates having evolved in open terrain like mule deer and elk.  Antlers of adult male reindeer can be as much as 4 feet long!  Each reindeer has 2 antlers; that’s 8 feet of antler each and with eight reindeer, (or nine if we count Rudolph on foggy nights) that is 64 to 72 feet of total antler span.  A typical small Cessna airplane only has about 36 feet of wingspan so certainly it seems feasible those eight reindeer, running that fast with that antler span, could get off the ground. 

There are a couple of myths about reindeer as well.  You have probably heard the poem that states reindeer have tiny feet. Actually they have extremely large hooves and dewclaws used for traction and digging through snow to find grass and lichen.  Wide hooves come in handy for sliding to rather sudden stops on the small landing sites that Santa has to work with on Christmas Eve. 

Lastly, you’ve probably heard the famous Christmas song which describes reindeer walking “up on the house top click, click, click”.  Well it is true that reindeer do make a clicking sound as they walk.  This aids them in keeping track of each other in blizzards but according to experts, this clicking may not develop until about 12 months of age in most individuals. This is caused by a tendon rubbing over a bone in the ankle which in turn causes a distinct clicking sound.

I hope you will share this piece with any young people who may be curious as to how those hard working reindeer chauffer Santa all around the world delivering their gifts. From all of us at Oklahoma State University Extension, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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