What's the Difference Between Reindeer and Caribou?

The two are the same species and live in the same areas, so why different names?

Two caribou in Denali National Park. Glatz Nature Photography [© All Rights Reserved]/ MNN Flickr Group

North Americans have two names for Rangifer tarandus. They're called reindeer and caribou. They are the same species but different subspecies. And humans had everything to do with that.

"Reindeer and caribou share the same genus, Rangifer, and species name, tarandus. Domestication is the biggest difference between reindeer and caribou. Reindeer are a semidomesticated subspecies of Rangifer, and there are many subspecies of both reindeer and caribou in Alaska," writes University of Alaska.

Humans began to domesticate caribou around 2,000 years ago in Eurasia. While Europeans simply call both the wild and domesticated subspecies "reindeer," North Americans have two different names for them. The domesticated species provided milk and meat to human keepers, as well as hide, bone, and antler for protection and tools. Reindeer were also used to pull sledges across frozen tundra, giving inspiration to Santa's magical Christmas sleigh.

The differences that have popped up due to domestication include that reindeer are shorter and stouter than caribou, and they have thicker fur. (Both have hollow gourd hairs to keep them warm.)

Reindeer are also more sedentary than caribou. While they still migrate within a grazing range, they don't make the famously long migrations of caribou. Most stay within enclosures no larger than a city block, overseen by human herders. As a result, they tend to be more docile, stocky, and friendly toward humans.

The breeding season of reindeer has also shifted to earlier in the year, starting as much as a month before caribou. Baby reindeer are typically born at the end of April, while baby caribou are born at the end of May.

View Article Sources
  1. Drever, Ronnie, "Holiday Treat: What's the Difference Between Reindeer and Caribou?" Cool Green Science.

  2. "Reindeer ... Caribou ... What's the Difference?" University of Alaska, Fairbanks.