Woodland Caribou: The lesser known Cousin

by Dave Hanks

We all are familiar with the caribou that migrate over the vast northern spaces. This animal is the Barren Ground Caribou. But, are you aware that there is another type – the Woodland Caribou? This beast is found in small groups in forested habitat. It does not make the long migration, like their counterpart, staying in an approximate 50 mile area of winter foothills and alpine summer ranges.

Woodland Caribou are about 4 feet at the shoulder, 6 feet long, and weigh up to 700 pounds. In the wild, they usually live from 10 to 15 years. Longer life-spans would occur if domesticated (like reindeer, which are actually caribou). They have heavily muscled bodies, skinny legs, and strong hooves that balloon to dinner-plate size in winter. Big feet have a snowshoe effect that facilitates movement over snow. Both sexes grow antlers, but the cow’s are shorter and have fewer points.

Ground and tree lichens are their major food source which restricts them to a forested habitat. They will also eat willows, shrubs, and grass. It takes 80 to 150 years for woodlands to produce enough lichens to support a group of these deer. Mature forests are essential for their survival. As a result, the Canadian government has listed them as an endangered species. Today, there are fewer than 7000 individuals.

Caribou mate in early to mid-October and calve in early June. The females don’t mature sexually until two and a half years and will have one calf a year thereafter.

Woodland Caribou can still be seen in Banff and Jasper Parks, and on Alberta’s forested foothills.

Woodland Caribou “High-tailing it” into familiar forested cover

(“High-tailing it” into familiar forested cover

Caribou: The Northland’s Deer

I saw him coming a half mile away, and so I ran to where I thought our paths would converge. Sure enough, he came right up in front of me and posed for this picture.

A trip to Alaska or northern Canada is incomplete without a Caribou experience. This deer of the north grows a most impressive set of antlers. In fact, it’s the only deer species where both sexes grow them. Research seems to suggest that Caribou bulls that grow the biggest racks are more vigorous and sire daughters that have an increased milking ability. The rack also has a projection on the front that can be used as a snow shovel.

The word caribou sounds like the name Zaliboo. This is the name that the Inuits gave the beast. It means “one who paws the ground”. This they do through the snow in order to reach the moss and lichens upon which they feed. The hooves make a clicking sound as they travel due to a flexible ankle joint.

The massive herds of the far north are America’s version of the great herds of the Serengeti Plains of Africa. They are constantly in migration but may follow a different route year by year. Mosquitoes and other types of flies are extremely numerous in the watery expanses of the far north and plague the Caribou during the summer months. Caribou can be seen resting on patches of snow, which seems to give them some relief from this menace. I have seen animals that are very mangy and run down from mosquito bites. Animals can actually die from exsanguination (loss of blood from bites).

This species has a symbiotic relationship with the Gray Wolf. The wolf culls the herds and keeps the Caribou in a healthy condition. It seems odd that predation can actually keep prey populations at a maximum, but it does.

Both the Barren Ground Caribou and the Forest Caribou are vital elements of our northern wild lands.

This rack, in the velvet, will grow to a massive size

This rack, in the velvet, will grow to a massive size

Hair: Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t!

(Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus in early summer hair exchange)

I sit and watch, with amusement, the removal of a hair piece and instillation of another. The older one is worn and needs replacing. The new piece is glued into place and a trim blends it all in. One would rarely know that it was not the real deal! I laugh and decide that hair is a worthy subject for a short essay.

Animals periodically get rid of, or acquire new hair pieces (i.e. coats). It’s a blessing to either keep one warm or allow one to cool-off. Primates (animals with thumbs – apes, monkeys, and such) are especially concerned with their hair. They spend many hours picking through and grooming a partner’s plumage. The result is hygienic. As warm weather critters, they need not be too concerned with seasonal changes in the weather.

But ungulates (hoofed beasts), go through the annual cycles of shedding and growing new winter coats. The Barren Ground Caribou (pictured), in late summer, grow white-tipped guard hairs that are hollow. These special hairs give buoyancy while swimming and act as guard hairs providing an insulating layer to conserve body heat and keep them exceptionally warm. Also, in winter, hair grows between the toes and around the rims of their hooves. This provides protection by keeping hoof pads from coming in contact with the frozen ground. Coat color will vary seasonally. In spring, a molt gets rid of the light beige, warm outer coat. But August finds them dark brown with white hair on their neck, chest, and belly. For the rut, bulls develop heavy white manes. Diet affects hair health. Good nutrition will give hair an attractive sheen.

No matter the species of mammal, hair is an essential commodity – both for utility purposes, and attractiveness. Healthy hair in males send signals that his offspring will probably be vigorous and stand a good chance for survival in a competitive environment.