The festive legend says that Santa Claus’s reindeer pull a sleigh through the night sky to help Santa Claus deliver gifts to children on Christmas Eve.

The names of the eight reindeer are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. The enduring popularity of the Christmas song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has led to Rudolph joining the list, bringing the number of Santa Claus’s reindeer up to nine.

But in reality how many types of reindeer are there?

The reindeer is also known as caribou in North America and is a species of deer. It is native to arctic, subarctic, tundra, boreal, and mountainous regions of northern Europe and Siberia, in addition to North America.

Beyond their sled-pulling capabilities and discrimination towards those with red noses, what do you really know about reindeer?

Historically, the European/Asian reindeer and American Caribou were considered to be different species, but they are actually one and the same. There are two major groups of reindeer, the tundra and the woodland, which are divided according to the type of region the animal lives in, not their global location. The animals are further divided into subspecies, ranging from nine to thirteen (depending on who is doing the classification). At least one subspecies, the Arctic Reindeer, is already extinct.

Despite the fact that they reside at the North Pole, Santa’s reindeer are most likely the R.t. platyrhynchus subspecies from the Svalbard islands off of Norway. This assumption is based on the reference from Clement C. Moore’s poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” describes them as tiny. The only reindeer that could really be considered tiny are the Svalbard subspecies (above), which weigh about half as much as the average reindeer species and are at least a foot shorter in length. Both traits are useful when landing on roofs.

In most deer species, only the male grows antlers, but that’s not true for most reindeer. Although the females in certain populations do not have antlers, many do. Since reindeer shed their antlers at different points of the year based on their sex and age, “professionals” believe that Santa’s reindeer probably aren’t older males, because older male reindeer lose their antlers in December and Christmas reindeer are always depicted with their antlers. That means Santa’s sled either has to be pulled by young reindeer or Santa’s reindeer are female.

One last bit of trivial information regarding our festive friends. Researchers at University College London recently discovered reindeer are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light. While human vision cuts off at wavelengths around 400 nm, reindeers can see up to 320 nm. This range only covers the part of the spectrum we can see with the help of a black light, but it is still enough to help reindeer see things in the glowing white of the Arctic that they would otherwise miss. Like Santa’s workshop, maybe?

Melody K. Smith

Sponsored by Access Innovations, the world leader in thesaurus, ontology, and taxonomy creation and metadata application.