Kenneth Setzer

Reindeer and Caribou and Christmastime

Caribou or reindeer?

This day has got me thinking about reindeer and caribou, and which is which. While toads and frogs have differentiating characteristics and behaviors, and are definitely quite different animals in more than name, reindeer and caribou are not. They’re the same things. Reindeer is a European term (therefore Santa’s are reindeer, since Santa seems to be of Northern European origin) and caribou is the name used throughout North America.

I shot this image of caribou running along the tundra east of Nome, Alaska, and have recently been wondering about them. There are, it seems, five extant tundra caribou, plus some very rare woodland-dwelling species. They all live in the holarctic northern region.

This interesting map of their distribution (thanks to Wikipedia:, however, seems conspicuously to lack the Seward Peninsula area, where I photographed the individuals pictured. The Seward Peninsula is the white area sticking out of central western Alaska.

Reindeer habitat divided into North American and Eurasian parts

So what gives? It seems in a random (and rare) act of kindness and concern for Alaskan Natives along the Bering Sea area reindeer were imported from just across the sea in Siberia, in an effort to provide much-needed meat, hides, and assistance animals. Caribou thrive in the harsh and cold climate, and unlike smaller, weaker dogs, do not require feed other than what they can graze. A Georgia-born runaway slave named Michael Healy remarkably worked his way to the rank of Captain in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, sailed in Alaska’s waters, and by the late 19th Century managed to get permission from congress to begin introducing reindeer from Siberia to the Seward Peninsula of Alaska.

The project was a success from the beginning, and there are now about 18,000 to 20,000 caribou/reindeer in Alaska, two-thirds of them on the Seward Peninsula. I can only imagine they are omitted from this map because they are known to be introduced by humans. The reindeer of northern Europe are domesticated and even tamed; their existence in some areas is dependent on humans, so I’d think by now, Alaska’s caribou could be considered “natural,” being well established. This leads to the final question: are Alaska’s caribou more rightly called reindeer, since they derive from Siberia, where they are actually called reindeer?

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