Reindeer: Current research, how they came to North America, and the origin of the red-nose myth

Photo courtesy of University Of Alaska, Reindeer Research Program

'Tis the season for reindeer, but for Morris Animal Foundation (MAF), it’s a year-round occupation. In two current research studies, MAF is studying eye disease in reindeer and environmental factors linked to it. In the studies, scientists will examine viruses and bacteria found in the eyes of Svalbard reindeer, Norwegian wild reindeer, Alaskan reindeer and caribou, Greenland reindeer and Scandinavian moose. They will then evaluate links between viruses, bacteria and other environmental factors to provide a foundation for developing prevention, control and treatment strategies.

In a previous Morris Animal Foundation-sponsored study, Dr. Sophia Papageorgiou was the first epidemiologist to identify a suite of tick-borne pathogens infecting Mongolian reindeer.

In North America, and Alaska specifically, reindeer, which are part of the caribou family, have a long history of helpfulness even though they aren’t natives. And it all started with a food shortage.

In the 1800s, traders from whaling ships exchanged their “store bought” goods for pelts, meat and hides. When the whaling industry became unprofitable, whalers—and the traders—left Alaska, leaving behind a depleted marine mammal population and an increasing dependence on city goods.  Captain Healy, of a local shipping company, noticed the Alaskans were, literally, starving to death. He had an idea.

Healy’s idea was to transport reindeer from Siberia, along with herders who would to teach native Alaskans a new trade. In so doing, they would grow resources and build a new economic base.

He mentioned the idea to Dr. Sheldon Jackson, head of the Department of Education in Alaska, and the two got to work. The plan succeeded, with a one major tweak: Scandinavians took the place of the Siberian herders, bringing their dogs and sleds and herding know-how.

Over the next 100 years, reindeer herding became a viable economic activity for native Alaskans. From an initial herd of 171 and 5 herders in the late 1800s, the reindeer population swelled to 640,000 in the 1930s followed by a decrease to 50,000 in 1950 (due to environmental factors). At present, the reindeer population in western Alaska numbers 20,000.

Today, reindeer are under government care. The Reindeer Act of 1937 restricts reindeer ownership to Native Alaskans. And, in 1960, the Bureau of Indian Affairs became responsible for range management, and it applied modern range management techniques to reindeer.

How much do you know about reindeer?

  • In 1898, reindeer were employed to pull Alaskan gold miners’ supply-loaded sleds.
  • In 1899, the first reindeer postal route was established in Alaska.
  • In 1981, the first edition of the Reindeer Health Aid Manual was published by the University of Fairbanks—Alaska. 
  • Today, there are approximately 20,000 reindeer in western Alaska, 10,000 in the Aleutian Islands, and approximately 1,000 privately-owned reindeer in the lower 48 states.
  • Reindeer fight fair: both males and females have antlers.
  • At top speed, reindeer and caribou can run 50 mph.
  • Reindeer are home bodies in their migration patterns, circling the same ground repeatedly. 
  • Rudolph’s shiny nose wasn’t all myth—reindeer have 25% more capillaries carrying blood in their nasal architecture than humans, and it increases when they are at higher altitudes. (It also turns their noses red!)
  • Rudolph or Rudolphina? Males shed their antlers in early December; females keep their antlers throughout the winter season. If Christmas Eve is December 24, well, you do the math.

For More Information:

Morris Animal Foundation:

Reindeer Herders Association:

Reindeer Research program:

Reindeer Health Aid Manual:


University of Alaska-Fairbanks

Reindeer Roundup curriculum by Carrie Buckie (Reindeer Research Program, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2004).

Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the University of Rochester in New York. 






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