Imagine you are standing on a hill overlooking the Arctic tundra. One friend stands to one side, another friend stands on the other side. Your friend on the right says, “Look there, can you see the Reindeer?” before you can reply, the other friend asks, “Look there, can you see the Caribou?” You may think you are looking for two different animals, but reindeer and caribou are one and the same species and comparing Caribou vs Reindeer will reveal only slight differences in behavior based on where herds of these animals live.
What’s the Difference Between Reindeer and Caribou?
The different names “Caribou” and “Reindeer” are both used for the species Rangifer tarandus depending on where you are in the world. However, one of the most interesting things you’ll find when comparing Caribou vs Reindeer is that this species can (and often does) behave differently in those different regions … so Reindeer and Caribou do end up having some differences even though they are the same species. These differences mainly center on herd migration (Caribou do it, Reindeer don’t).
It’s sort of a nurture vs nature thing.
Where the animals live dictate their behavior, and that behavior has changed the species in slight ways, making Reindeer and Caribou somewhat unique animals.
That may seem strange, but it is all about the range of these animals, and (to a lesser extent) their direct relationship with humans.
At the most basic level, the difference between Reindeer and Caribou is one of geography: Reindeer are in Europe and Asia, while Caribou are in North America.
However, there are more subtle factors that separate these two animals, and it has a lot to do with how they have evolved to survive and thrive in those specific global regions.
The Migrations of Caribou
Caribou in Canada are famous for their massive migrations, which is one of the longest of any land mammal.
Caribou move in massive herds and roam thousands of miles each year. These deer herds can number in the tens of thousands as they migrate between breeding and winter grounds.
And Caribou are massive animals with large antlers – something that makes the sight of this migration all the more impressive to behold.
Reindeer – The Homebodies
Reindeer, on the other hand, just don’t have the same wanderlust as Caribou.
Many Reindeer herds will stay in the same locations and not migrate the way Caribou do. Perhaps this is because domestication of reindeer is much more pronounced than it is for Caribou. In fact, the biggest difference you’ll find in a Caribou vs Reindeer comparison is that Reindeer are domesticated.
Domestication has affected their behavior in unique ways.
Domestication: Caribou vs Reindeer
Humans and Reindeer have been working together for 5,000 years, and the link between our species is strong.
We brought these animals from the Boreal forests in Northern Europe and Asia. Then we made them beasts of burden, and used them for resources. Thus, a new relationship was born.
Early in this relationship, Reindeer were still wild. Over time, and with more interaction with humans, the wild Reindeer were domesticated. They became content to stay in smaller spaces and not migrate … even if their herds were living in the wild and followed by nomadic groups of humans who relied on them for survival.
As Reindeer settled in northern Europe and Asia, humans found an animal that provided a rich resource to rival the cow in southern climates. One that could survive the harsh winter conditions of the north.
Over thousands of years, we have kept Reindeer hides to make clothes and shelter, cultivate them for meat, and used antlers and bones to create weapons, tools, utensils, and other items.
Let’s not forget, reindeer have also been kept for companionship and periodic light labor (we’re looking at you, Santa!).
Reindeer and Humans Today
In more modern times, Reindeer have become one of our most beloved animals.
In 1837, Clement Clarke Moore wrote T’was the Night Before Christmas (A Visit from St Nicholas). His poem in many ways formed our popular idea of Christmas, Santa Claus, and the mythology around the yuletide holiday. One of the most endearing and enduring parts of the story is Santa’s sleigh pulled through the air by magical Reindeer.
The deep connection between humans and Reindeer continues to this day.
In the more remote regions of the Arctic, people still heavily rely on reindeer in day-to-day life.
While Caribou in North America are used by humans, they never went through the domestication process “Reindeer” in Europe and Asia did.
In Canada, these animals remain wild and more in tune with what they were 5,000 years ago across the continent, especially the northern Canadian regions.
Over the years, domesticated Reindeer have become shorter and stockier.
Caribou remain strong, svelte, and massive.
How Domestication Changed Reindeer
Over thousands of years, Reindeer have gone through a transformation thanks to their reliance on humans.
They have thicker fur and have become much more sedentary. They stick to grazing ranges instead of embarking on seasonal journeys the way their North American counterparts do.
It is also worth noting that the breeding season for reindeer has moved with time, now happening earlier in the year and sooner than the caribou season.
It is this wild nature that separates the caribou from the reindeer. Yes, they are exactly the same species, but as you can see, they are quite different animals.
That said, wild reindeer populations still exist in Norway, Russia, and Greenland.
They are not as widespread as Caribou herds in Canada. But the do face the same ecological challenges, such as predation, climate change, and proximity to humans.
These wild Reindeer are much more in touch with Caribou behavior. One key difference is that they still don’t engage in the same massive migrations.
Summary of the Facts: Comparing Caribou vs Reindeer
- Reindeer and Caribou are the same deer species (Rangifer tarandus). European and Asian animals are called Reindeer, while they are Caribou in North America.
- Domesticated Caribou are called Reindeer in all locations around the world, including in North America.
- Both Male and female Reindeer grow antlers and compared to their size, Reindeer have the largest and heaviest antlers in the deer family.
- Reindeer are built for the coldest of climates. They have hair on every part of their body, including their hooves. They are also the only deer species to have hair covering their nose.
- Caribou spend their days in groups of between ten and a few hundred animals, but form herds of tens of thousands for their migrations.
- Caribou migrations are among the longest of all terrestrial mammals.
- Reindeer are the only truly domesticated deer species.