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Could Rudolph be an imposter?

Santa Claus's reindeer
Credit: F. O. C. Darley (1822-1888)
Santa Claus's reindeer
Could Rudolph be an imposter?

You know Rudolph, don’t you? He’s the first reindeer in front of Santa’s sleigh. A big male, strong, in good health and capable of working all night long without ever wearing out. He’s the one who brings the presents. And in fact, all the images dealing with the Nativity show a sleigh being pulled by strong reindeers proudly sporting well developed antlers. The antlers of an adult can be as much as 125 centimeters high, 112 centimeters wide, and can weigh from seven to ten kilograms. And yet, believe it or not, Rudolf could be an imposter!

Rudolf is a male

The first thing to concede: Rudolph is a male. In leafing through a number of dictionaries we find that “Rudolph” is a masculine name, that it applies to males and not to females. To that point, no problem: the male Rudolph is still at the head of the herd pulling Santa Claus’s sleigh. But is it real?

Shedding the antlers

In the deer family, antlers grow in springtime, fall off after mating season, then regrow the following spring. Among whitetail deer, moose and elk, only the males carry antlers, a secondary masculine sexual characteristic. Females don’t have any.

With caribou, the situation is different. Both males and females have antlers, the latter with a smaller and less impressive set that they keep all winter and that doesn’t fall off until early April.

Antlers and winter feeding

If there’s not much snow on the ground, the animal pushes it aside with its hoof, giving it access to lichen, its favorite food. If there are 10 or 20 centimeters of snow on the ground, the hoof doesn’t move very much off. Adult caribou in that case will use the flat part at the front of their antlers like a shovel. With a shake of the head, the reindeer pushes the snow aside and has easy access to the lichen. Wearing antlers all winter ensures better feeding for females and allows them to be in excellent health for the upcoming spring calving season. Thus, the babies will be better equipped to face the rigors of the Arctic.

And Rudolph?

With the male caribou, the situation is very different. They won’t be giving birth to calves in springtime, and are therefore capable of putting up with poor food temporarily. Do they need to keep their antlers all winter? No. In fact, the male caribou’s antlers fall off during the first week of December. (To feed themselves, they dig into the snow with their hooves.) In which case, is it possible for a male caribou – one called Rudolph – to be pulling Santa’s sleigh the evening of December 24? Males don’t have antlers at that particular time! So maybe we should call that reindeer “Rudolphette”? On the other hand, if the antlers are frail and delicate, then Rudolph is a young male who hasn’t lost them yet. But holiday-season illustrations always show us well-developed antlers.

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