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What are Caribou?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Caribou are members of the deer family who were once widely distributed across much of North America. These large animals have played an important economic role in Canada and Alaska, where they are still reasonably abundant, and many people enjoy seeing herds in the wild when they visit these regions. Along with other arctic animals, caribou have developed a number of unique traits which make the animal especially suited to life in the harsh arctic environment.

There's actually no difference between these animals and reindeer. Caribou is simply the North American name for the reindeer; it is derived from the Micmac Indian language. However, there are a few genetic differences between European and North American reindeer which have led biologists to classify them into different subspecies. Both of these animals are considered Rangifer tarandus, but the North American subspecies are not found in Europe, and the European subspecies are not found in North America. Several subspecies have also gone extinct.

Caribou are still found today in Alaska.
Caribou are still found today in Alaska.

One North America subspecies, the woodland caribou, was once widely found in the forests of Canada and parts of the Northern United States. They have short, heavily branched antlers, in contrast with the larger curved antlers of the barren ground caribou, found in the tundra of the arctic. It's also possible to spot Grant's caribou and peary caribou in some parts of North America.

In the spring time caribou can survive on a diet of lichen.
In the spring time caribou can survive on a diet of lichen.

As a general rule, these animals are gray to brown in color, with a thick undercoat of insulating hair and a longer overcoat of hollow hairs used to trap heat. Adults can weigh as much as 660 pounds (300 kilograms), with females typically being much smaller. Along with their heat-trapping coats, caribou have developed several other interesting adaptations to help them survive in the arctic. For example, their nose is extremely large, with a lot of internal surface area, allowing air to warm before it is drawn into the lungs, and they can modifying their hooves to deal with seasonal changes.

Like their European counterparts, caribou have historically been used as draft animals, hunted for food, and domesticated for milk. Whether domesticated or wild, caribou live on a diet of lichen, spring growth from plants, and grasses. In winter, the ability to survive on lichen alone becomes especially important, as green growth is very scarce.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are caribou, and where can they be found?

Caribou, also known as reindeer in Europe, are large, migratory deer native to Arctic, sub-Arctic, tundra, boreal, and mountainous regions. They are well-adapted to cold environments and can be found in northern areas of North America, Europe, Asia, and Greenland. Their range is circumpolar, meaning they inhabit lands around the globe's northern pole.

How do caribou adapt to their cold habitats?

Caribou have several adaptations for surviving in cold climates. Their fur traps air, providing excellent insulation, and their hooves expand in summer to provide support on soft ground and retract in winter to expose the edges for cutting into ice and snow. Additionally, they have a specialized nose that warms incoming cold air before it reaches their lungs.

What do caribou eat, and how do they find food in the winter?

Caribou are primarily herbivores, feeding on a variety of plants including grasses, sedges, leaves, and twigs. In winter, they use their large, crescent-shaped hooves to dig through snow to find lichen, commonly known as reindeer moss. Their diet is low in nutrients, so they must graze for long periods to sustain themselves.

Are caribou populations stable or endangered?

Caribou populations vary by region and some herds are stable while others are in decline. Factors such as climate change, habitat destruction, and human disturbance contribute to their vulnerability. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), some subspecies are considered vulnerable or endangered due to these environmental pressures.

What is the significance of caribou in indigenous cultures?

For many indigenous peoples of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, caribou are central to their way of life, providing food, clothing, and materials for tools and shelter. They are also deeply embedded in the cultural traditions and spirituality of these communities, often featuring in stories, dances, and ceremonies.

How do caribou migrate, and why is it important?

Caribou undertake some of the longest migrations of any terrestrial mammal, with some herds traveling over 3,000 miles annually. This migration is crucial for accessing seasonal food sources and calving grounds. It also plays a significant role in shaping the ecosystems they traverse, influencing plant communities and providing food for predators.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


I find this very interesting that there is no difference between a caribou and a reindeer. I have heard of Christmas themed place and parks that have reindeer for people to see, but I never knew that these were actually caribou and always figured that reindeer were elusive animals that one could not hunt.

This of course begs the question as to how hard it is to domesticate a caribou. I see caribou or reindeer once in a while in pens and this leads me to believe that they may not be as hard as one thinks to domesticate.

I could be wrong on this and I wonder if a caribou is an animal that is simply domesticated rarely or is more of a zoo like animal that is an only look type of attraction?


@matthewc23 - I know what you mean, some hunters do not realize what they are getting into going after bear or moose as both can be fairly aggressive.

A caribou hunt is a lot like a deer hunt, only with a bigger deer and very interesting antlers. I have been on a couple caribou hunts and the caribou seem to not be as aggressive as one would think and they are safer to hunt as you shoot them from a distance and they will almost never charge at someone.

On one of these hunts one of the guys I was with, my uncle, managed to shoot a rather large caribou and I have to say it makes a great trophy in his living room. I will also say that dragging the animal to a place we could dress and tag it was a pain in itself and definitely not like dressing a deer.


@jcraig - I know what you mean. The moose is incredibly hard to bring down and one usually needs a very high powered rifle in order to take it down on one shot and that is not even a given that they will go down.

The caribou though is a much smaller large game animal that requires lower powered riles to take down. This allows the hunters a lot more of an easier time going after the animal as opposed to the moose which is rarer to see, harder to hunt, harder to bring down, and surprisingly elusive despite its size.

The Caribou to me seem like a step up from deer and the basic big game animal that someone should hunt before they go after something like a bear or a moose.


I have always seen caribou as being a bit of a curiosity among hunters and that is simply the reason why people choose to go after them.

I feel like when people take hunting trips up to Canada to look for caribou they are doing so simply because the animal is very different looking and is seen as big game to go after and an accomplishment to take down.

I have heard a lot of hunters say they would rather hunt caribou as opposed to hunting moose simply because the moose is apparently very hard to bring down and the smaller sized caribou is still a thrill to take down, simply due to it being classified as a big game animal.


a caribou is a sort of deer.

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    • Caribou are still found today in Alaska.
      By: juan35mm
      Caribou are still found today in Alaska.
    • In the spring time caribou can survive on a diet of lichen.
      By: alessandrozocc
      In the spring time caribou can survive on a diet of lichen.