Why was Rudolph’s nose so bright?

Why was Rudolph’s nose so bright?
On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer, on ... bot fly? Plus 8 more science-backed facts about reindeer.

Story by Kurt Knebusch | Photos from Getty Images

Reindeer have feet like snowshoes, antlers like the bottom of a rocking chair, and connections in story and song to Santa Claus. But they don’t live wild in Ohio.

Neither do caribou, which belong to the same species. (See No. 2 below). And Marne Titchenell—who’s a wildlife program specialist with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University—has never even seen them in Alaska.

“I went there a couple of years ago,” she said. “I thought I had a good chance, considering there are more caribou there than people. But no dice. I’ve had to rely on the ones I’ve seen at the Columbus Zoo.”

A relative lives in Ohio

Titchenell has a sleigh full of experience, however, with a relative of the reindeer and caribou.

White-tailed deer live in all 88 of Ohio’s counties and have reached nuisance levels in some suburbs. Part of her job is giving workshops that help people deal with them.

There’s a tiny bit of good news, she said: “I can confidently say, with the backing of the scientific community, that white-tailed deer can’t fly.”

She’s less certain when it comes to reindeer. “I’ve never seen one fly,” she said. “But I keep looking.” Especially on Dec. 24.

Until then, check out these science-backed facts about reindeer.

Young reindeer.

1. Reindeer used to be Buckeyes

Once upon a time, at least more than 10,000 years ago, until around the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age, reindeer lived in the region that would eventually become Ohio. 

Paleontologists have found reindeer fossils in Ohio plus in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, to name a few.

2. Reindeer are the same thing as caribou, In general, But also in a way they’re not

Reindeer and caribou belong to the same species, Rangifer tarandus. In general, people call them “caribou” in North America and “reindeer” in Europe and Asia.

“Caribou” also tends to refer to the larger, wild R. tarandus types, like the ones in Canada and Alaska, while “reindeer” often but not always means the slightly smaller, domesticated kinds, like many of the ones in Scandinavia.

Scientists say that in all, there are 14 R. tarandus subspecies and at least four domesticated breeds.

But a 2013 study served to complicate matters. Based on DNA analysis, the study suggested that reindeer and caribou should be divided into two groups: one group being the caribou in southern Canada; the other group being the caribou in Alaska and northern Canada plus the reindeer in Europe and Asia.

The scientists who did the study think the Ice Age split the two groups apart about 200,000 years ago and that the groups’ genes and adaptations to their environment, including to changing climates, are a bit different because of it.

Older male reindeer in Mongolia.

3. Reindeer, yes, are deer

Reindeer are members of the Cervidae, or deer, family. The Cervidae family includes elk, moose, and Ohio’s white-tailed deer.

4. Reindeer *do* go ‘click, click, click’

Reindeer make a clicking sound when they walk, and not just when up on a housetop. Certain tendons snap over the sesamoid bones in their feet, and that’s what makes the click.

Experts think the clicking sound helps the members of a herd stay in contact, especially when they can’t see, like in a snowstorm, say, or when it’s foggy.

5. Reindeer also vocalize, which doesn’t count shouting with glee

Reindeer cows grunt to their calves. Calves bleat and bawl to their mothers. Males snort, hoot, bellow, and rattle hoarsely when trying to attract a mate. A special inflatable air sac in the neck gives the calls of the males extra oomph.

Reindeer feeding in Finland.

6. a reindeer sensing danger may sniff, listen, stare, urinate, ‘wheeze-snort,’ and rear up and jump in the air like a horse

Scientists call the rearing up and jumping an “excitation leap.” It’s a visual warning to other reindeer. It could mean there’s a predator coming. Like a wolf. A bear. Or a fearsome, toothy, bouncy biped you could even say was abominable.

7. There’s a reason a reindeer can have a red nose, At least on the inside—And it’s GROss

Flies called reindeer nose bot flies sometimes deposit their larvae near a reindeer’s nostrils. The larvae crawl into the reindeer’s mouth and then its nasal sinuses, and spend the winter there. Sometimes there can be more than 50 of them.

The result can be inflammation, a reddening of the affected tissue. But you couldn’t really say the nose glows (like a light bulb). Come springtime, the larvae get sneezed out.

8. A reindeer runs faster than a grandma

A reindeer can run at speeds of up to 48 mph. A grandma walking home from someone’s house on Christmas Eve, or on any other day, averages about 3 mph. If both a reindeer and a grandma were traveling in the same direction and following the same path, the grandma indeed and unfortunately would get run over by the reindeer.

Even LeBron James, who is not a grandma but who is native to Ohio’s bioregion and was clocked once running more than 20 mph, would end up covered with hoof prints.

Reindeer herd in the Arctic.

9. ‘up on the house top’ has a connection to Ohio

There’s a reindeer tie to Ohio in music. Benjamin Hanby, who was born in Rushville (about 40 miles south of Columbus), lived in Westerville (just north of Columbus) and went to Otterbein University there, composed “Up on the House Top” in 1864. According to its Wikipedia entry, the song is “considered the first Yuletide song focused primarily on Santa Claus,” along with his four-footed, foot-clicking helpers.

Hanby was a minister and abolitionist who helped with the Underground Railroad. Today, his Westerville home is preserved as the Hanby House State Memorial, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is included in the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom of significant Underground Railroad sites.

learn more

Check out CFAES’ wildlife work at the websites of SENR (research, outreach, and academic majors), the Terrestrial Wildlife Ecology Lab (research), the Ohio Woodland Stewards Program (public workshops), and The Ohio State University Stone Laboratory (workshops and summer courses on Lake Erie).

Learn about enrolling in SENR, about its wildlife-related majors, and about enrolling at Stone Lab.

Also learn about enrolling at Ohio State ATI, CFAES’ two-year associate degree-granting unit in Wooster whose credits can transfer directly into a bachelor’s degree program at Ohio State, including CFAES and SENR, and whose majors include environment and natural resources.