Critter Post 3: Caribou

Denali - Caribou in snow
Caribou in the snow, Denali National Park

Despite a paucity of images, I’ve decided to write about the caribou for Critter Post 3. Caribou are an integral part of life in the Arctic and we were lucky enough to see one on the shore of the Beaufort Sea on Alaska’s North Slope – quite the sight, the lone antlered creature on the vast tundra. He was too far away to photograph, so for Critter Post 3 I’m using a couple of images taken on our trip to Denali National Park.

Basic Facts:

Caribou is the name given to all North American populations of Rangifer tarandus, also known as reindeer. The caribou we’ve seen are barren-ground caribou, living on the tundra. There are also boreal woodland caribou. The barren-ground caribou have the largest migration of any land mammal, roaming 1,200 kilometers in a season from birthing grounds to feeding grounds. Bull caribou weigh 400-600 pounds and the cows average about 200 pounds. Both males and females grow antlers, which is unique in the deer family. The whole species is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List due to a 40% decline in global population over the last 25 years.

Range and Habitat:

The species is circumpolar in boreal forest and tundra, although it is only called ‘caribou’ in North America and Greenland.

Caribou habitat
Typical barren-ground caribou habitat, Denali National Park


Caribou have a four-chambered stomach that allows them to digest tough plant matter – lichens, sedges, grasses, and the leaves of willow and birch trees.

Food For:

Humans, wolves, bears, mountain lions, lynx, and coyotes. Arctic Native cultures have long relied on caribou for food and clothing.

Breeding Behavior:

Mating usually occurs in early fall (September/October) and calves are born the following spring (May/June). During the rut (mating season), the males have frequent battles, sparring with their antlers. Survival rate for the calves is 30-50%, but the calves are able to travel with their mothers within an hour of birth.

Special adaptations:

Caribou fur is well-adapted to the cold Arctic climate, with a dense woolly undercoat and an outer coat of hollow guard hairs. Caribou hooves adapt to the season: in summer they become larger and spongier for better traction on the wet tundra; in winter their footpads shrink and become harder, enabling the animals to dig in the snow for lichen.

Caribou grazing
Caribou grazing on bushes and grasses, Denali National Park

17 thoughts on “Critter Post 3: Caribou

  1. Always fun to hear from you and about what you are experiencing.
    Fog, mist and cool here. Maybe what you are having there?

    1. Thank you, Caroline – so glad you enjoy it! We’ve actually had beautiful sunshine until yesterday when the rain returned…

  2. Wow that must have been quite an amazing trip – I would love to hear more about it!

    1. Thanks, Andrea! I assume you’re referring to our trip to Denali? I wrote a post at the time: Or if you’re curious about our time on the North Slope, here’s the post about the day we saw the caribou (it’s actually more about visiting a bird biologist on a remote island, but it mentions the caribou):

  3. Me again, I know what you mean about wanting to do a critter’s post that you haven’t got many photos for! You will have to develop a library of critter images that you save on a drive and add to little by little. That’s what I do with the birdies! And still I reckon I am going to run out of birds for regular posts unless I do a major photo shoot somewhere full of feathered friends!

    1. Thanks for the good idea! It’d be much better to have the photos all in one place – easier to find and refer to. Also, I think I’ll have to slow down on the frequency of posts or I’ll run out of critters I have pictures for…. Are you thinking of sailing up to Queensland at any point, speaking of feathered friends? I loved all the birds there – so colorful and so exotic from my North American standpoint!

      1. Yes the frequency catches you out. I do fortnightly bird posts but have had to do a few “focused bird shoots” when running low. Better find some soon! Re QLD, that’s where we are heading at the end of July to get away from winter conditions for the start of our full time cruising life!

        1. Hi Chris, Got internet again and enjoyed your last bird photo challenge. I think I’ll have to cut back on how frequently I do my critter posts, too… Have fun in QLD – when do you leave?

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