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Caribou: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

Welcome to this comprehensive fact sheet about one of North America’s most iconic mammals—the Caribou! Caribou, also known as reindeer in some parts of the world, are remarkable creatures adapted to some of the harshest climates on the planet.

Whether you’re a wildlife enthusiast, an educator, or someone looking to delve into the world of this amazing animal, this article is designed to be your go-to resource.

The Caribou at a Glance


Class:Mammalia (Mammals)
Species:R. tarandus

Essential Information

Average Size:4 to 7 feet (1.2 to 2.1 meters) from nose to tail
Average Weight:Males: 350 to 400 lbs (158 to 181 kg); Females: 180 to 260 lbs (82 to 118 kg)
Average Lifespan:12 to 17 years
Geographical Range:North America, Europe, Asia
Conservation Status:Vulnerable (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

There are multiple subspecies of caribou, each adapted to its own specific habitat and range. Some of the most notable subspecies include:

  1. Barren-ground Caribou: Native to Canada and Alaska, known for its large-scale migrations.
  2. Woodland Caribou: Inhabits forests in Canada and the northern United States.
  3. Mountain Caribou: Resides in the mountain ranges of British Columbia and Alberta, Canada.
  4. Eurasian Reindeer: Found in northern Europe and Asia, generally domesticated.

Each subspecies has unique features that enable it to thrive in its environment. For instance, the barren-ground caribou possess larger hooves for better locomotion across the tundra, while the woodland caribou have a more tree-friendly hoof design.



The caribou is a large mammal with a robust body, strong legs, and a thick fur coat that varies in color from creamy white to dark brown, depending on the subspecies and the season.

One of the most distinctive features of the caribou is its antlers, which are grown by both males and females—though the antlers of males are usually much larger. These antlers can span up to 51 inches (130 cm) for males and 20 inches (50 cm) for females. Males generally weigh between 350 to 400 lbs (158 to 181 kg), while females weigh in at 180 to 260 lbs (82 to 118 kg).

Caribou have specialized hooves that are adapted for the various terrains they navigate. In summer, the pads on the bottom of their hooves become sponge-like to provide extra grip on muddy ground. In winter, these pads shrink back, exposing the hard, sharp rim of the hooves to cut into ice and snow.

Males are generally larger and have more massive antlers compared to females. During the breeding season, males also develop a thicker neck mane.

Habitat and Distribution

Caribou inhabit a wide range of environments across North America, Europe, and Asia, including tundras, forests, and mountainous regions.

The barren-ground caribou, for instance, primarily roam the open tundras, while woodland caribou prefer dense boreal forests. The geographical distribution extends from Alaska and Canada in North America to Scandinavia and Russia in Eurasia.



Caribou are mainly diurnal but can be active at any time of the day or night, depending on factors like weather and predation pressure. They are social animals, often found in groups that can range from as few as two or three to as many as several thousand during migrations. Herd composition can change seasonally, with males and females coming together for the mating season.

Caribou communicate through a variety of vocalizations, body language, and scent markings. Vocalizations include grunts, bleats, and whines, primarily used for communication between mothers and calves or during the mating season. Scent markings from special glands located in front of their eyes and under their legs help to establish territories and social hierarchies.

Other interesting behaviors include the phenomenal migrations undertaken by some subspecies, covering up to 3,000 miles in a year. These migrations are not just awe-inspiring but also vital for their survival, as they move in search of food and to avoid predators.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Caribou are primarily herbivores, feeding on a wide variety of plant materials. During the summer, their diet includes leaves, herbs, and aquatic plants. In winter, they primarily consume lichens, also known as “reindeer moss,” as well as twigs and the bark of certain trees. They are also known to eat some fungi and berries.

Caribou have a specialized digestive system featuring a four-chambered stomach, which allows them to efficiently extract nutrients from their fibrous diet.

Their foraging strategy varies with the season. In summer, they are often seen near bodies of water where vegetation is abundant, whereas, in winter, they use their hooves to dig through the snow to reach the lichens underneath.


The natural predators of caribou include wolves, bears, and, to some extent, mountain lions and coyotes. The level of predation varies depending on the region and the specific circumstances such as season and health of the herd.

Calves are particularly vulnerable during the first few weeks of life and are often the target of predatory birds like eagles.


Reproduction and Life Cycle

The breeding season for caribou, known as the rut, occurs in late September to early October. During this time, males engage in fierce battles, using their antlers to establish dominance and win the right to mate with females.

The gestation period for caribou is about 230 days, resulting in the birth of a single calf in late May or early June. Twins are rare. The female isolates herself from the herd for birthing and stays with the calf for a few days before rejoining the group. Calves are able to stand and walk within a few hours of birth and are weaned by two to three months of age.

Caribou have a natural lifespan of up to 15 years in the wild, though this can be considerably less in areas with high levels of predation or human disturbance.

Conservation and Threats

Caribou are currently facing a variety of threats, including habitat loss, climate change, and increased predation. Some populations are also affected by human activities such as mining, oil drilling, and deforestation. The conservation status varies by population and region but generally ranges from “Least Concern” to “Endangered.”

There are various conservation efforts in place to protect these magnificent animals. These include habitat restoration, predator control programs, and the establishment of protected areas.

Non-profit organizations, governments, and indigenous communities often collaborate on these efforts to ensure the sustainability of caribou populations.

Fun Facts

  1. Caribou are one of the few deer species where both males and females grow antlers.
  2. They have hollow fur, which provides excellent insulation against the cold.
  3. Caribou are excellent swimmers, thanks to their buoyant fur and wide, cloven hooves.
  4. During migrations, some caribou herds travel over 3,000 miles per year, one of the longest mammal migrations in the world.
  5. In some cultures, caribou are highly revered and feature prominently in folklore and traditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between caribou and reindeer?

While these terms are often used interchangeably, “reindeer” is generally used to refer to domesticated caribou. In Europe, the term “reindeer” covers both wild and domesticated forms.

Do caribou live in the Arctic?

Yes, many caribou populations inhabit the tundra regions of the Arctic, but they can also be found in boreal forests and mountainous areas.

What do caribou eat in winter?

Caribou primarily feed on lichens, twigs, and the bark of certain trees during the winter months.

How fast can caribou run?

Caribou are capable of running at speeds up to 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) for short distances.

Are caribou endangered?

The conservation status of caribou varies by population and region, but some are considered endangered due to factors like habitat loss and climate change.

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