Caribou, Rangifer tarandus

Caribou, Rangifer tarandus.
The strong life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness
Oh God! how I'm stuck on it all
.
~The Spell of the Yukon, Robert Service

The caribou, Rangifer tarandus, probably gained its name as a result of the corruption of the Micmac Indian term for this species. "Xalibu" means "the one who paws," referring to the way the caribou digs through the snow with its splayed hooves to find food. Caribou are a familiar symbol in Canadian culture. Their image adorns the Canadian 25 cent coin and Christmas would not be the same without Santa's domesticated caribou pulling his sleigh!

Caribou, Rangifer tarandus.
Three subspecies of caribou inhabit the Arctic: the barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus), Peary caribou (R. tarandus pearyi), and Grant's caribou (R. tarandus granti). The barren-ground herd, which is the largest population of the three subspecies in arctic Canada, migrates 1000 km between its summer and winter quarters. Calves are born on the tundra from mid-June to early July, but the herds return to mate and overwinter on the fringes of the boreal forest. The barren-ground caribou may have numbered 3 million animals in 1940, but they have now been reduced to a few hundred thousand individuals due to overhunting and the destruction of winter pastures.



Migrating caribou.

Peary caribou, which occur only in the High Arctic Islands, is an endangered subspecies. They feed almost exclusively on reindeer lichen, Cladonia rangiferina. As such, winter starvation is a common risk for these animals; this was the case in the 1970s when Peary caribou suffered a catastrophic die-off because ground vegetation was covered in a thick layer of unbreakable ice. More recently, in 1996, another episode of mass starvation occurred in the High Arctic, wiping out two decades of slow, steady recovery. The islands experienced freezing rain the previous fall, leaving the ground covered in an inch of ice and most vegetation inaccessible. It is estimated that the Peary caribou population now totals no more than 2,000 individuals.