Rudolph the red-nosed caribou just doesn't have the same ring to it.
But according to Perry Barboza, a professor in the department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A&M, Santa's eight tiny reindeer aren't actually reindeer at all. Instead, Barboza said, Dasher, Dancer and all the rest are likely reindeer's close cousins -- the caribou.
"Although Siberian reindeer may appear a suitable choice [for pulling Santa's sleigh,] North American caribou are leaner and longer-legged than reindeer during this time of year," Barboza said in a report published in the scientific journal, Physiological and Biochemical Zoology. "What has been reported in sightings as 'eight tiny reindeer' are therefore likely to be young caribou."
With more than 30 years of experience in wildlife nutrition, especially with large mammals, Barboza's expertise -- with the help of Rudolph's red nose -- sheds some light on the Christmas lore.
Barboza spent 18 years as a faculty member in the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Located 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, the university's location allowed Barboza to analyze the ecology of arctic ungulates -- reindeer, caribou and muskoxen -- in their natural habitat. He began his tenure at A&M in November, trading in cold wind and white Christmases for sunshine and shorts-in-December weather.
The research report, which was published in 2012, is based on the findings of several studies conducted by Barboza that analyzed the dietary habits, energy levels and body composition of caribou in the Alaskan terrain.
In a 2002 study funded by the National Science Foundation, Barboza found that caribou use energy from low-protein lichen -- their primary food source in the winter -- more efficiently and are able to store it for longer periods of time compared to reindeer. This long-lasting energy is a necessity when pulling a massive sleigh around the world for an entire night.
"Caribou live off protein stored in the previous year," he said. "Calves born in June are actually constructed from protein [the mother] stored from the last August. On the other hand, reindeer give birth before much food is available, so their energy storage is much lower."
According to Barboza, caribou like to be on the move, which could explain how they can transport Santa around so quickly. Caribou migrate in herds of 40,000 to 60,000 head with a 1,000-mile annual migration radius, while reindeer tend to be more stationary. These yearly cross-country trips condition caribou, making them leaner, stronger and able to "deliver high power with a minimal flight mass," he said.
In addition, Barboza said caribou calves entering their first winter have the "greatest power-to-mass ratios" since their legs are proportionately longer than their adult counterparts. This implies that Santa has a young flight team each year, he said.
As for being able to catch a glimpse of the gift-giving group on Christmas Eve, Barboza explains why it is such a rare phenomenon.
"You can see a lot of caribou in the right places" he said, "and it's usually far away from where most people live."
Because caribou are more easily frightened than reindeer, if children wish to encounter Santa and his young caribou, Barboza notes in his report that they should remain quiet and still.
He also advises to not forget to leave milk and cookies for Santa, as "he will be working very hard to deliver all those presents on time."
And maybe set out lichen this holiday season, too.
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