Come Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, and Donner and Blitzen...

Okay, it is time to panic if the reindeer are coming. We know that Santa likes to park them and the sleigh on the roof so he can hop down the chimney to deliver presents to all of the good boys and girls. But I am quite worried that our roof will not be able hold them.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are large mammals; the largest can weigh up to 400 pounds. Multiply that by nine (Rudolph wouldn’t miss the Christmas trip for the world) plus the big-bellied sleigh driver and his cargo, and a collapse is very possible.

I know that the location on top of the house makes it easy to dash in and out, but I am putting a special request in to Santa to park in the yard.

The present-delivering crew all must be exhausted, as the trip from the North Pole is a long one. Reindeer are native to arctic and subarctic regions, and are not indigenous to the Island, or any of the continental United States for that matter. Alaska alone has the right conditions to host these ungulates.

Reindeer, also called caribou, are specially adapted to survive the conditions of the cold northern climes and their long, cold trip around the world on Christmas. Rudolph has more than color going for him when it comes to his nose. Reindeer have nasal turbinate bones that are well adapted to their frigid environs. These bones increase the surface area in the animal’s nostrils, and will warm incoming air before it enters the lungs.

Cold toes aren’t a worry for reindeer either, nor is slipping on winter’s frigid surfaces. Reindeer hooves are broad and spread out for walking on snow and ice. They also are used to dig, moving snow around to find their food, which includes grasses, twigs and especially lichens.

While I would advise leaving a treat for Santa, don’t bother trying to feed his reindeer herd. An adult reindeer can eat more than 10 pounds of food per day — that is a lot of cookies!

It is not easy to determine the gender of those holiday visitors. Both male and female reindeer can have antlers, which is a unique situation among deer species. And these racks can be as large as four feet in width.

Santa made a great choice for finding a speedy animal to haul his sleigh. Reindeer calves are quick learners: they are able to run within 90 minutes of birth, and by the end of their first day they can run fast enough to outpace a human. At speeds of up to 40 miles an hour, they can cover a lot of ground (or sky, as the case may be).

Nor do reindeer shy away from water. They are great swimmers, due to their thick fur coat that traps air and makes them buoyant. Even if the ferry isn’t running and the airport is fogged out, they will still get to your house!

The famed reindeer have only been in the spotlight in the last few centuries. For so long, they toiled in oblivion. It was in 1832 that the poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas, first introduced the reindeer to the reading public. Their larger fame came 100 years later, when Montgomery Ward advertising executive Robert May wrote the now well-known and loved poem, Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, in 1932.

It is hard not to appreciate the fortitude of these impressive animals and their many adaptations to surviving the cold. After their upcoming marathon trip, these ultimate ungulates will have more than earned a long year of playing reindeer games.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.