Episode 211 – Reindeer: Lobos and Lichens

“…and today we’re talking about the titans of the tundra, the cervids of Santa. But more on that later.”

Reindeer are famous for flying, being rude to those that are different from them, and fiercely defending Johnny’s Turbo Man action figure. But one reindeer has an unusual nose that’s even more famous. Researchers have spent entire minutes figuring out why red color is best color for glow nose so that we can have a better understanding of the story’s scientific accuracy. But it turns out that seeing red is actually a good thing if you’re a reindeer here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy..


  • Reindeer are cervids with deer-like bodies, though they are sturdier than a typical deer. Their stockiness is somewhere between deer and mooses.
  • They have thick, large antlers, that can grow to be around three feet long. 
  • They have dense fur coats that keep them warm in the arctic.
  • There are 14 subspecies that range in color and size. Some are almost completely white, while others are dark brown. Many have lighter colors on their bellies and necks.

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. 

  1. River otter
  2. Beaver
  3. Human child
  4. Baby chimpanzee 

*There’s a lot of variation between subspecies. The following is for the Boreal woodland caribou.

Height at the Shoulder

  • 1.0 to 1.2 m (3.9 feet)
  • How many reindeer would go into the world’s tallest snowperson?
  • Hint: Don’t give me any woke points! I say snowperson, because this particular snow being was female in that it was made with beautiful, long eyelashes and a stylish snowflake necklace. It was made in Bethel, Maine, a town that beat it’s own record after creating the world’s tallest snowman in 1999. Both snowpeople had tires for teeth and  buttons and full 25 foot spruce trees for arms. She was named after Maine’s senator at the time, who was delightfully called Olympia Snowe. 
  • 31.3 reindeer. Olympia was 122.08 feet (37.2 meters)


  • 110–210 kg (242–462 lbs)
  • How many reindeer go into Olympia’s weight in snow?
  • Hint: Her predecessor, named Angus, King of the Mountain, was made in winter and didn’t melt until June. Olympia was completed in February and didn’t melt until July. 
  • 28,138.5 reindeer. Olympia was 13,000,000 pounds in snow alone. 

Fast Facts

Reindeer grow antlers, which are distinct from horns because they are seasonal and fall off after the mating season. They are also made of bone, while horns are made of keratin like hair and nails. 

Reindeer are the only cervids in which the females also regularly grow antlers. 

Like a shark we’ve talked about in the past, reindeer conserve heat countercurrent heat exchange. Their veins and arteries are intertwined. Warm arteries flowing into the legs share heat with cool veins flowing back into the body. This keeps their legs cool and prevents overheating while running, but it also helps maintain their core body temperature without their heart having to pump quickly.

They have crescent shaped cloven hooves that are ideal for digging. They also work as wide snow shoes. In the summer, their hard hooves become soft and spongy for more grip in the wet tundra. In the winter, ther fleshy pads of their feet tighten and shrink, exposing only the hard hoof to the cold ground. 

Reindeer knees click when they walk. The sound of a heard can be heard for miles, allowing wonders to locate the rest of the group. 

Major Fact: Lobos and Lichens

  • So reindeer are some of the only diurnal (daytime) mammals that can see light outside of the visible light spectrum – i.e. from violet to red. 
    • Light with a longer wavelength than red goes into the infrared and light with a shorter wavelength than violet goes into ultraviolet (or UV)
    • UV light is the primary light source at night, so most mammals that can see in the dark have eyes that pick up UV light. It’s just rare to see it in an animal that isn’t nocturnal.
    • Researchers have run tests showing that reindeer respond to changes in UV light.
    • The thinking is that this helps them see better in the arctic and sub-arctic regions they live in
    • Twilight lasts for months in those places, so the sunlight they get is UV-heavy. Combined with the unbroken blanket of white snow, it can be pretty hard for mammals to see or distinguish objects. Humans refer to this as snow blindness. I’m sure other mammals have grunts and squeaks for it too.
    • Speaking of twilight, wolves’ fur absorbs UV light, so they appear darker to reindeer than they do to humans in contrast to the surrounding snow
    • The lichens on trees also absorb more UV light 
    • Both wolf fur and lichen would appear black to the reindeer and really stand out against the snow – so reindeer can more easily tell where their food and enemies are.
  • We all know that Rudolph’s red nose saved the day on the year of that dreadful Christmas snowstorm – but there may be more to the fact that his nose was red than meets the eye
  • There is a fantastic article on Frontiers for Young Minds by Professor Nathaniel Dominy that covers this in minute detail with a tongue-in-cheek seriousness. Here are some of my favorite lines:
    • “The story of Rudolph’s nose and its brilliance in fog is familiar to most children, adults, and biologists.”
    • “As a general rule, scientists avoid studying anomalous traits. The fact that luminescent noses are so rare explains why the advantages and disadvantages of luminescent noses are practically unstudied.’
    • “The noses of reindeer have a complex system of blood vessels and are therefore quite warm…If too much heat is lost from his glowing nose, Rudolph could risk hypothermia. It is therefore extremely important for children to provide high-calorie foods to help Rudolph maintain his body temperature on Christmas Eve.”
    • “Such studies could shed new light on the amazing biology and vision of reindeer.”
  • Anyway, Nathaniel points out that fog (epsecially thick fog) diffuses all types of light, but blue light (or light with shorter wavelengths) tends to be suppressed by fog more than longer wavelengths. 
    • Since reindeer have eyes that are tuned to see short wave light (UV), they’re virtually blind in the fog, rendering a midnight sleigh ride impossible.
    • Fortunately, Rudolph isn’t the blue-nosed reindeer.
    • Red light travels furthest in fog, which would help anyone trying to see but would be especially useful for Dasher and the gang
      • Though I imagine that Rudolph wouldn’t be able to see anything past his nose, so maybe don’t make him the leader
  • Nathaniel also thinks that Rudolph’s red nose is that way because it’s “infected with nasal parasites and simply red and swollen” – a real buzzkill

Ending: So look for lobos and lichens, stay grounded in the fog, and keep your nose free from nasal parasites like all the reindeer except Rudolph here in LDT.