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Santa's reindeer are more likely young caribou, report says

Ben Anderson

Has the mystery behind Santa's reindeer finally been solved? A University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher may have cracked the case, according to a press release from the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology. According to Dr. Perry Barboza, Santa's reindeer are likely young North American caribou, thanks to their low mass -- allowing for easier flight -- and high food intake, allowing for greater energy output.

From the release:

Calves entering their first winter have the greatest power-to-mass ratios, because their legs are proportionately longer and their body is leaner than those of adults. Although Siberian reindeer may appear a suitable choice, North American caribou are leaner and longer-legged than reindeer during this time of year. Caribou can also better sustain very high food intakes -- of a diet including dry lichens and formulated rations -- at 6% of body mass per day. What has been reported in sightings as “eight tiny reindeer” are therefore likely to be young caribou.

This could also help explain -- and possibly disprove -- another prevailing theory about the physiology of Santa's reindeer: that they are all female. A popular adage suggests as much, because "only women would be able to drag a fat man in a red velvet suit all around the world in one night, and not get lost."

It wasn't until 2009 that greater scientific evidence was put forward supporting the all-female reindeer team theory. That's when two Edinburgh University professors postulated that Santa's reindeer must all be female, thanks to the fact that many adult male reindeer and caribou shed their antlers earlier in the season, before Christmastime rolls around.

This is even true about Alaska's caribou population, which is estimated at 750,000 animals. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that most large bulls shed their antlers in October, while young males and females keep their racks into the spring.

And everyone knows Santa's reindeer have antlers.

Unfortunately, the lack of first-hand accounts and research on Santa's reindeer leaves scientists hoping for some sample of DNA or perhaps the ability to get a GPS collar on onto Dasher, Donner or Blitzen.

Barboza notes in the release that young caribou are easily startled, which could be why so few children have been able to get close to them.

"For the best chance of observing Santa and his young caribou, it is recommended to stay very still and quiet," Barboza advises. "Don’t forget to leave milk and cookies for Santa, because he will be working very hard to deliver all those presents on time."

And maybe some lichen for the caribou, if you happen to have some lying around.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com