The larger-than-life holiday identity of reindeer likely originated from their ability to pull a heavy sleigh around their arctic homes. The nomadic reindeer-herding Saami people of northern Scandinavia and Asia have relied on reindeer for more than 5,000 years. Traditional Saami costumes feature red and green colors, pointy hats and pointy boots, just some of many connections between these people and Christmas traditions.
Reindeer have different functions in different cultures. The most widespread, large herbivores in the arctic and their seasonal grazing patterns stimulate new plant growth. A reindeer's remarkable ability to pull twice its weight for miles on end has provided much-needed muscle power for the nomadic Saami people. Today, reindeer are mainly used in the United States and around the world to demonstrate the link between humans and animals and the environment. In Norway, they're used for ecotourism and are a major source of income.
Their antlers are made up of the fastest growing tissue in the animal kingdom, growing up to an inch a day. Made of bone, reindeer antlers can grow within only a few weeks of birth. Reindeer are the only species of deer where both sexes have antlers, although only male reindeer develop a brow shovel, which they use to clear snow and ice off of grass.
Reindeer eat essentially any vegetation found in the tundra, and have an amazing sense of smell that allows them to detect food beneath up to 3 feet of snow. Reindeer fur has incredible insulating qualities and can protect these animals down to 80 degrees below zero and up to 115 degrees above. Found in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, all reindeer are domesticated or semidomesticated; the last wild reindeer were hunted out in Finland around 1900.
Special thanks to Jim Knox of Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo for sharing these interesting reindeer facts. See more of Jim Knox on "Jim Knox's Wild Zoofari," a live-action wildlife series airing on PBS that teaches kids about wildlife conservation. The reindeer seen on today's show are from Santa's Workshop, a theme park in North Pole, New York.