Caribou Deer: History, Habitat, and Feeding Habits Explained

Caribou deer species, facts, mating

Introducing, the Caribou Deer, or for scientific reference, Rangifer tarandus, a handsome mammal that lives in the northern parts of Greenland, Asia, Europe, and North America.

Weighing incredible amounts of anything between 240 to 700 lbs, you wouldn’t want one of these great beasts falling on you any time soon. To give you a better idea of just how large they are, a standing man of about 6 feet tall could find themselves at eye-level with a caribou deer should they encounter one.

Ready to learn more about this mammal? Sit back, relax and enjoy our Caribou fact sheet on these animals which you may encounter on your adventures into the wild.

About Caribou Deer


Caribou is a wild species of deer, often referred to as reindeer when they are domesticated. A reindeer refers to the type or family of deer, and caribou deer specifically fall into the reindeer family.

They are nomadic animals, constantly moving in the searching for sustenance. The first caribou fossils were found in North America and believed to be more than 1.5 million years old.

How to Identify Them

These are magnificent animals with rich, brown coats covering most of their body before fading into white towards their neck and flank. With a change of season, so too do they experience a change of coats which turn grey in winter.

Interestingly, their coloration varies among individuals and subspecies, with caribou in the north often being lighter than those in the south.


Rangifer tarandus


Caribou deer have beard-like fur hanging from their dewlap, the skin along their throats. Their faces consist of long muzzles covered in short hair and they have short tails of between 4-10 inches.

Massive Antlers

These beautiful deer are characterized by their impressive set of large antlers. While many animals have a differentiating ability through their antlers, both male and female caribou deer grow antlers. Your next thought is likely something along the lines of how to tell them apart. Well, the size of their antlers gives it away.


A male, or stag if you prefer, has larger antlers and white spots around their necks. These white spots become more pronounced during mating season when the males begin to prepare for a territorial claim through ruts. Interestingly, the male deer antlers are shed during the colder months.


Females, also known as does, weigh considerably less than the stags (<485 lbs) and their antlers are straighter. Unlike their male counterparts, their antlers remain very much attached to their heads during winter, assisting in the search for food, before falling off when they give birth.

If you’ve ever seen one of these animals, you may have paused to admire their fuzzy velvet-like antlers. This only lasts for the first part of the year however when the antlers are growing. Thereafter, this layer of velvet, which is actually a skin-covering, will come off during the September month, leaving a white, hard layer behind.

Preferred Habitat

More commonly known as caribou deer in North America, the rest of the world knows these creatures as reindeer. One of the main differences lies in their breeding. While reindeer are domesticated, smaller animals found across regions of the world, the North American caribou are wild.

If you’re wondering what is the best climate for finding deer in the wild, you would be best equipped to search for them in colder, Arctic and Sub-Arctic areas. Coated in thick, heavy fur, these great animals survive in severely cold conditions.

Getting cold is hardly a concern for these deer due to their double-layered coat and air pockets in their fur which helps with the cold. These air pockets are also great for additional floating ability when wading through pools of water.

Similarly, they are not likely to get cold feet any time soon. Equipped with large hooves covered in fur to function as some multipurpose “shoes”, they are able to maintain grip when walking in the winter snow and are also perfect for navigating large puddles and other water bodies.

Caribou Hooves

Their hooves also make for great spoons when foraging for food as they scoop the winter snow away to reach their beloved lichen. Just like their coats, their hooves also change with the weather. Summer months mean that the middle of the flesh padding becomes thick to make contact with the ground. In winter, however, their pads draw back and are overgrown by protective hair, leaving the animals to walk on the hard hoof horn.

Feeding and Migratory Habits

In spite of their bulk, these large deer are herbivores, surviving on a simple diet of grass and lichen. Their food intake is anything but moderate as they are easily able to put away around 12 pounds of food in a day.

Portion control is not necessary for these animals, why should they need to when they have four-chambered stomachs? The perks of such a stomach is the increased ability to digest food.

In all fairness to the caribou, what they ingest is burned away through their migratory habits. Large herds of caribou head north for the summer months, traveling anywhere between 600 to over 3000 miles before they eventually settle in fields of grass where they can happily munch away on grass, seeds, berries, and leaves.

Incredibly, this migration length makes the caribou deer a species with one of the longest migrations of any land animals. Furthermore, these animals are fast! In contrast with their large bodies and weight, they can sprint at more than 50 miles an hour. On a “slower” day however, they have pretty strong endurance that may keep them moving for 20 miles an hour at a time.


In the colder months of the year, they make their way back to the south, migrating over lands and areas of huge expanses to reach slightly more protective climates. It is in these months that they survive on lichens, the slow-growth plants that form on rocks and trees as well as willow twigs and dried grass.

You may decide to purchase a deer feeder to help the animals in times of need too. Here’s what to look for in the event that you do.

Caribour migration times


Living in small herds, the caribou deer communicate through grunts and snorts. This might be confusing should you wander across what sounds like pigs, but is actually a herd of caribou. Communication is particularly important between does and their fawns.

On the other hand, should you want to communicate with a deer, for instance, to let them know that your car is coming down a stretch of road, there is a deer whistle for that.

Caribou Mating

Ruts are defined as the antler-battle wherein males come face to face with each other, locking their antlers in battle. The stags spar with one another in order to win favor with a doe for mating purposes.

Gestation Period and Birth

The lifespan of a caribou is around 15 years. Females reach maturity at around 2.5 years of age, and sexual maturity usually occurs between 1.5 to 3.5 years of age. The season to breed season is usually an October event, wherein much rutting occurs.

Spring is commonly known as the season of rebirth, regeneration, and life. Fittingly, baby caribou emerge in late spring between May and June following a gestation time of only 45 days.

Ever wondered just how much you can get done in thirty minutes? Well, if ever you want to re-evaluate your own time management, a newly born learns to walk in the first thirty minutes of their life. How’s that for some perspective?

Humans and Deer

While many are wild, a large number of have been domesticated by humans in many cases and bred over time. This first happened in eastern Russia around 2000 years ago.

Many indigenous people of Europe and Asia are still heavily reliant on caribou deer for everything including food, shelter, and clothes. Reindeer were domesticated and used for milk, meat, riding purposes and to transport heavy loads. Think pulling sleighs and you won’t be far off.

They are better known as “tuktu” to the Inuit groups that have domesticated and lived alongside these animals for so many years.

Did You Know?

In order for the herd to stick together in treacherous, blizzard conditions, their knee joints make audible clicks as they walk, helping them to stay with the herd.

Triumphant males of ruts are able to form a “harem” of between 5-15 does in a year showing that polygamy is very much alive and well in the animal kingdom.

Interestingly, although too much sodium is detrimental to humans, deer need salt all year round as it is good for their health. It helps with digestion and also just tastes pretty good to these mammals.

Final Thoughts on the Caribou

Caribou is one of the endangered species at present due to factors such as predation and loss of habitat. This occurs due to environmental degradation such as deforestation for agricultural purposes, as well as a breakdown in their habitat through human disruption, or natural disasters such as wildfires.

In years past, the 19th century to be specific, their fur was a major commodity traded on the market which is what they were hunted for. Laws have since been implemented towards the protection of these populations, however, laws are not always respected sadly.

Should you want to attract some of these wild caribou deer to your property or simply want to help add to their food intake in times of food scarcity, you may want to do a bit of research on what deer like to eat.

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