Caribou

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Caribou  (Rangifer tarandus) are large herbivores that have a range in the furthest reaches of North America, not to be confused with the Eurasian reindeerYou can find them in Alaska and the Yukon through the tundra all the way to the East coast of Canada. Most of them like to feed on lichen, which can be found in those areas. Their coats can range from light grey/brown to a much darker brown, and many have white socks on their forelegs. They also have a distinctive white batch on their neck and up to their shoulders and on their underbelly. They have two coats, one of which uses hollow air filled hairs that helps them insulate against extreme cold and survive in the winter.

The size of the caribou can range from 34 inches to 62 inches in height, and 145 to 600 pounds in weight depending upon which sub-species you are looking at. Both males and females have antlers, second in size only to the moose.  The males use the antlers to battle for mating rights during the rutting season. The females have them to protect their young after birth.  Caribou make a clicking sound from their hooves when they walk or run. This curious trait is caused by a tendon moving over an ankle bone.

They are some of the fastest animals, able to run up to 50 mph, even at a very young age. They also have four toed hooves with a sharp edge that allows them to dig through the snow to reach their food. The name Caribou is from the French explorers, and comes from the Native American words xalibu or Qalipu which means “one who paws” from their foraging behavior. They are also known to have one of the largest migration patterns, up to 5,000 miles a year. But some sub-species are sedentary.  When migrating they gather into great herds, some over 50,000 animals, and before the decline in population, up to 500,000. They are also excellent swimmers, and will easily cross rivers.

The Caribou has few natural predators, such as wolves, coyotes, cougars and lynx.  Hunting by man has also greatly thinned the population.  There is also an issue with white tailed deer, which carry a nematode parasite brain worm, which while harmless to deer, can spread to caribou and infect them with a deadly neurological disease.  Also, the loss of their habitat through clear cutting has allowed the wolf population better chances to bring down caribou. The population decrease can be easily seen in the decline of the great herds. The George River herd in eastern Canada used to be the largest, with 800,000-900.000 animals, and in 2014 was down to under 15,000.

Caribou have and continue to play an important role to the Native American population in their regions.  Not only were they a major food source, but they were also a huge element in their histories and mythology as well. Because they are so tied together, in areas that the caribou have been depleted, the Native American tribes have also been depleted and have moved on in most cases.