How reindeer evolved to be Santa’s perfect helper

By Alex Potter

It was no accident that Father Christmas chose reindeer to pull his sleigh - Rudolph was the only animal for the job.

Since the release of Clement Clark Moore’s poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas in 1823, reindeer have been known as Santa’s sleigh pullers. It’s not without good reason that reindeer were chosen for this most important of roles, they were definitely the top candidate for the job!

A reindeer in the snow looks directly at the camera
There's a reason reindeer were chosen to help Santa. © Annika Thierfeld | Pexels
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From their habitat in the cold, icy Arctic, reindeer have evolved unique features that help them to thrive in these harsh environments - and make them the perfect Santa's helpers. Their hooves have the ability to grow and shrink, depending on the season. In colder weather when they need to walk through snow and ice, the pads on their feet shrink, revealing the rim of their hooves. This gives the reindeer the necessary traction and grip to hold onto the slippery ground as they walk. In the warmer months, the pads on their feet expand and soften. As they walk across the ground that has been made wet by all the melting snow, their pads now provide a strong grip. As well as providing traction and stability, reindeer hooves are shaped like shovels, allowing them to dig through snow to get to the food sources underneath.

With their feet providing good traction, no matter the weather, reindeer are able to run at speed and over distance. They can trot at 25 miles per hour, doubling their speed if they want to make a getaway from predators. They have also been recorded travelling 500 air miles in six weeks across varied terrain. With speed and stamina like that, reindeer make very reliable sleigh buddies. While they might not look like water-loving creatures at first sight, reindeer are strong swimmers. During their migratory periods, they often have to cross wide bodies of water to access new areas. In the water, adult reindeer can keep pace at 4 miles per hour, or even swim comfortably at 6 miles per hour if they’re in a hurry.

A reindeer in the snow looks away from the camera
With no internal body clock reindeer would never experience jet lag. © Annika Thierfeld | Pexels

In the Arctic, polar-days and polar-nights cause the daylight hours to stretch and shrink at extreme rates across the seasons. To cope with the changes between long days and long nights, reindeer have no internal body clock. Research teams from the universities of Manchester and Tromso found that reindeer did not release melatonin into their bloodstream. Melatonin is the hormone that helps animals, including humans, to respond to the cycles of light and dark and sleep at the right time. Without this internal clock, the reindeer can respond to their own needs, without their bodies being influenced by the seasons. If this internal clock was in use, the reindeer could risk getting no sleep in the summer time, and not enough daylight hours to eat during the winter. It’s also a handy feature for when they’re travelling the globe delivering presents - with no internal body clock, the reindeer would not experience jet lag!

With their adaptable hooves, speed and ability to avoid the effects of jet lag, the reindeer are the perfect choice as a Christmas travel companion!

Featured image by Annika Thierfeld | Pexels