Are Reindeer and Caribou the Same? Differences Explained!

Yes, reindeer and caribou are the same animals of the same species, “Rangifer Tarandus”. But both reindeer and caribou belong to different subspecies. That’s why they have slight differences in their appearance and behavior.

They have many distinguishable characteristics. But why do people refer to them as the same animal, and how are they different from each other? Let’s unfold the truth today. Keep scrolling till the end to find out everything about reindeer and caribou.

Are Reindeer and Caribou the Same?

Although reindeer and caribou are from the same species but biologically and geographically, you will find some differences. 

There are different subspecies of Rangifer tarandus, which can be classified into two categories: reindeer and caribou.

The following table shows the different subspecies of Rangifer tarandus that make reindeer and caribou different:

CategoriesName SubspeciesGeographic location
ReindeerBusk ReindeerRangifer tarandus buskensisRussia and the neighboring regions
 Finnish forest ReindeerRangifer tarandus fennicusNorthwestern Russia and Finland
 Novaya Zemlya ReindeerRangifer tarandus pearsoniNovaya Zemlya archipelago of Russia
 Kamchatkan reindeerRangifer tarandus phylarchusThe Kamchatka Peninsula and the regions bordering the Sea of Okhotsk, Russia
 Svalbard ReindeerRangifer tarandus platyrhynchus The Svalbard archipelago of Norway
 Siberian Tundra ReindeerRangifer tarandus sibiricusSiberia, Russia
 Mountain ReindeerRangifer tarandus tarandusThe Arctic tundra of the Fennoscandian Peninsula in Norway and the Austfirdir in Iceland
 Siberian forest ReindeerRangifer tarandus valentinaeThe Ural Mountains, Russia, and the Altai Mountains, Mongolia
CaribouLabrador CaribouRangifer tarandus cabotiQuebec and Labrador, Canada
 Woodland CaribouRangifer tarandus caribouSouthern Canada
 Porcupine CaribouRangifer tarandus grantiAlaska, Uk, and Yukon, Canada
 Barren-ground CaribouRangifer tarandus groenlandicusThe High Arctic islands of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, Canada, and western Greenland
 Osborn’s CaribouRangifer tarandus osborniBritish Columbia, Canada
 Peary CaribouRangifer tarandus pearyiThe High Arctic islands of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, Canada
 Newfoundland CaribouRangifer tarandus terraenovaeNewfoundland, Canada

Clearly, Rangifer tarandus has different subspecies in different regions. Depending on the region, somewhere the caribou are found, and somewhere Reindeer are found.

See also  Do Reindeer Shed Their Antlers?

Mostly in Canada, you can find caribou subspecies, whereas, in Russia, you will find more reindeer subspecies.

Though all physical characteristics of reindeer and caribou are the same, they are not completely identical. In bare eyes, you may find both of them similar.


But they have many behavioral and genetic differences that you cannot identify easily and end up considering them the same by mistake.

Basic Characteristics of Reindeer and Caribou

As both reindeer and caribou belong to the same animal family, their characteristics are almost the same. A few basic characteristics are mentioned below:

  1. Antlers: In most deer species, only males have antlers. But, in the case of reindeer and caribou, both males and females have antlers. The length of male antlers can reach up to 51 inches. At the same time, female antlers can grow up to 20 inches.
  2. Antler fall: Their antlers are different from horns. Mainly, their antlers fall off and grow taller and larger every year. Male members begin to grow their antlers in February, but female members do so in May. After that, males drop their antlers in November, and female members keep them until their calves are born in May.
  3. Fur:  They are covered in fur from their nose to their feet. Their feet are known as hooves. These hairy hooves give them a good grip while walking on ice, snow, mud, or frozen ground.
  4. Nose hair: Reindeer and caribou are the only deer species with their nose completely covered with hair. This nose hair helps warm the cold air before it enters the lungs.
  5. Smelling sense: They are excellent sniffers. Their outstanding smelling sense helps them to find food from under the ice, to locate danger, and navigate. You will find them to travel in the wind. The reason behind this is it helps them to pick up scents.
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Are Caribou and Reindeer Related?

Yes, caribou and reindeer are related.They both are members of the deer family named Cervidae and the subfamily Capreolinae. As they belong to the same family and subfamily, they are related.

The family has almost 14 species and 7 subspecies with variations. Among these, 7 subspecies are known as caribou.


Besides, depending on the geographical location, they can be called reindeer or caribou, depending on domestication. You can check the table at the beginning, where I already mentioned these subspecies.

What’s The Difference Between Reindeer and Caribou?

Though reindeer and caribou are considered the same, there are a few sophisticated differences between them. Those differences are as follows:

  1. Domestication: Reindeer can easily be domesticated. Humans use those domesticated reindeer for transportation, milk, meat, and antlers. On the other hand, there is no history of caribou being domesticated. They are wild animals and live in the wild freely.
  2. Size:  Domestication has some effects on the size of these species. Hence, Reindeer are smaller and stouter than caribou. They also have thicker fur than caribou.
  3. Sedentary: Reindeer are considered more sedentary than caribou. They migrate within their grazing range, whereas caribou are famous for their long migrations.

Caribou have the longest migration behavior than any other land mammals. They can move between their winter and breeding grounds for thousands of miles every year.

However, reindeer live in colder places. But they don’t feel any urge to migrate due to their adaptability to cold weather and Domestication,

  • Breeding: The breeding season of reindeer starts before caribou. Baby reindeer are generally born in April, and baby caribou are born at the end of May.
  • Antlers: Reindeer antlers have a uniform and straight appearance. Moreover, their antlers are pointed and sharp. But caribou’s antlers have more random patterns and sprawling. Besides, those antlers are taller and more curved than reindeer antlers.
See also  Do Female Reindeer Have Antlers?

Why Are Caribou Called Reindeer?

Caribou are called reindeer because of their different geographic location and similar appearances. Usually, in North America, they are called caribou, whereas in Northern Europe and in Asia, they are known as reindeer.

In North America, these animals are domesticated. When domesticated, they are called reindeer. Those domesticated reindeer are used for meat, milk, and transportation.

reindeer habitat
Caribou and Reindeer

They are also quite friendly with humans. However, if they are wild and can’t be domesticated, then they are called caribou.

What Is a Male Reindeer Called?

Male deer are called bulls. In some cases, they are also known as stags.

Generally, there are two types of reindeer. One is stags, and another is geldings. A breeding male reindeer is known as a stag.

They rub the skin off his antlers in late August, before the rutting season in autumn. On the other hand, castrated male Reindeer are called geldings, and they do the same thing later in the winter.

What Is a Female Reindeer Called?

A female reindeer is called a cow. This is different from other deer families.

Mainly, in the rest of the deer family, female members are known as does. Though reindeer belong to the deer family, they share their terminology with cattle.

Thus, as female members of the cattle family are known as cows, female reindeer are also called cows.

Are Santa’s Reindeer Caribou?

Yes, Santa’s reindeer are caribou. The reasons for coming to this conclusion are:

  1. Caribou is fast:  Both reindeer and caribou can’t fly. But caribou can run faster than reindeer. Scientists found that a caribou can run up to 80 km per hour.
  2. Travel longer: Caribou are reported to travel almost 3000 miles every year.
  3. Adapted to cold weather: Caribou are found in places of colder weather. That’s why they are pretty adaptable to cold weather. In comparison, reindeer are not well suited to colder weather.
  4. Curved antlers: Santa Claus’s reindeer has curved and non-uniform antlers, which means they are caribou, not reindeer.

Final Words

Reindeer and Caribou have provided the basis of life for many cultures through milk, meat, skin for clothing, and antlers for tools, from thousands of years ago.

Therefore, they have great significance in human civilization. In this article, I tried to clear up some confusion about reminders and caribou. I hope you don’t have any confusion about reindeer and caribou after reading this article.

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