Reindeer have nice racks, and other fun facts about these non-mythical creatures

This week's cover story, "Santa is Grounded," tells the tale of Bill Lee, a mall Santa from Idaho Springs whose twelve reindeer were seized as part of an animal cruelty investigation. A judge has since ruled the law under which Lee's animals were taken unconstitutional, and some wonder whether they should have been seized at all.

But there's another burning question related to this sad case: What the heck is a reindeer, anyway?

For starters, reindeer are real animals. They're so real that they have a scientific name: Rangifer tarandus. As in, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rangifer Tarandus.

Reindeer live in Scandinavia, Svalbard (it's an archipelago, nerds), European Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland, according to this handy reindeer fact sheet from the Denver Zoo. Despite said handy fact sheet, the zoo no longer has reindeer on exhibit; they were moved to make way for the giant Toyota Elephant Passage exhibit.

Fun fact: Reindeer are the only deer species in which both males and females have antlers. Here, the zoo provides proof that Rudolph is, in fact, a lady:

Males use their antlers in fights to establish dominance and breeding rights in the fall and then drop their antlers from November to January. Females retain their antlers through the winter, an adaptation that enables pregnant reindeer to more easily scrape under the snow to find food.

Another fact: Reindeer are the only deer that have been domesticated. Their domestication is what sets them apart from their cousin, the caribou. This fact sheet from the University of Alaska explains the difference in more detail. Basically, reindeer are "shorter, stouter and more sedentary " -- the couch potato of the Rangifer tarandus family.

Here's more information from the zoo about how reindeer are used by humans:

The Sami people (native people in Scandinavia) depend on domestic reindeer for meat, milk and hides and use reindeer as pack animals and for pulling sleighs. Instead of farming domestic reindeer, native peoples in North America hunt wild caribou that provide food, clothing and shelter.

So how did they end up pulling Santa's sleigh? Wikipedia says the lore originated with the 1823 poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" -- which describes Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. But it doesn't mention the most famous reindeer of all, who wasn't famous until a certain Christmas song became a hit.

Want to listen to that song? So do we.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Guardian Angels increase patrols in Capitol Hill in response to recent violence."

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