With Christmas around the corner, stories of Santa Claus are as common as the incoming winter chill. He toils through the year, with his elves hastily working by his side, ensuring all good little boys and girls have toys under the tree. Santa runs a pretty efficient business—with manufacturing, distribution, and delivery of gifts. His delivery system requires more than just a sleigh and toys; he needs the power of a hardy beast, full of speed and grace. Ol’ Saint Nick found it in one of the north’s most majestic animals: the reindeer.
Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen! We know the names of those that carry Santa and his packages on Christmas Eve, from Clement C. Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), is a species of deer native to the far northern regions of the Northern Hemisphere. They live in the extreme climates of the far north, where temperatures can dip below -50°F and have no sunlight for up to three months. Santa was not the first person to figure out that reindeer are a great animal for work and survival. Many indigenous people in the far north have semi-domesticated herds of reindeer; the populations of such herds number in the thousands. They have even trained some reindeer to be milked!
To thrive in that extreme climate and pull Santa’s sleigh, reindeer need good food. Santa may give them quality hay, a little grain, and an occasional carrot. However they are perfectly happy to eat a variety of plant life. They spend their days munching on shrubs, grasses, and the bark of trees. One of their main food sources in the winter is a combination of algae and fungi called lichen, which grows in the tundra. They will dig into the snow with their powerful hooves to find the nutrient-rich food.
There may be another reason that Santa chose the reindeer as such a reliable carriers of his cargo. A 2011 study found that reindeer can see in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum. This is invaluable in the conditions in the Arctic. For instance, the fur of predators contrasts greatly with the snow in UV lighting. Also lichen, is easy to spot against the snow. Seeing UV in low light conditions, during long polar winters, comes in handy for guiding sleighs as well.
You may be wondering where did Santa get a red-nosed reindeer? Scientists will not say there is not some Christmas magic involved, but there are some reindeer sub-species in the Americas that have pinkish tones to their nostrils. These reindeer have 25% more capillaries in their nostrils. The extra blood flow keeps his nose warm and regulates his body temperature, which helps Rudolph fly his best on Christmas Eve.
Reindeer are an amazing animal that Santa chose for his delivery partners, and they excel in their task. On Christmas Eve, leave out a carrot and listen for the patter of hooves on your roof!