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Reindeer are holiday animals

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If any animal symbolizes the holiday season, it’s the reindeer.

You see them everywhere this time of the year: as lighted holiday figures grazing on lawns or as the team pulling Santa’s sleigh in children’s books on Christmas cards or in Yuletide animated television specials.

A pair of simulated reindeer antlers has even become a holiday fashion accessory replacing the ubiquitous Santa hat for some Yuletide revelers.

But Caribou are fascinating animals, well adapted to the changes brought about by winter as visitors to the California Academy of Sciences will find out all this month.

Tis’ the Season for Science is the academy’s annual holiday program featuring exhibits on reindeer biology, feeding habits, migration patterns and adaptability to winter’s freezing temperatures.

For the second year, a pair of live reindeer has taken up residence in the academy’s garden so visitors can see the animals and ask questions of the academy staff.

Individual exhibits in the academy’s palazzo highlight the animal’s biology, migratory patterns and other facts.

The reindeer is nothing if not adaptable. Some are wild while others can be domesticated to work as pack animals or provide energy-rich milk.

Reindeer and Caribou are the same species of deer, and are referred to as Caribou in North America while reindeer is the preferred European term.

Unlike other deer, which have pointed hooves, a reindeer’s feet are rounded and splayed out which is better adapted to walking in the snow like a pair of snowshoes, said Jack Debaucher, Chairman and Curator of the Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy.

The hoof even changes with the seasons becoming softer in spring and summer to grip the earth and hardening in winter to provide better traction on ice.

“It even works as a nice paddle if they have to cross water,” Dumbacher said.

But it’s a reindeer’s antlers which really set them apart. Unlike horns which continue to grow throughout an animal’s life, antlers drop off and grow back again with the seasons.

Reindeer are unique in that both males and females grow antlers and male antlers are very big, second only to moose in size, according to Dumbacher.

Male reindeer lose their antlers each year after the mating season while females keep theirs throughout the winter.

Does this mean that Rudolph the legendary Red Nosed Reindeer may be a female?

“If you saw a lot of reindeer hauling Santa Claus'sleigh in the sky and they have antlers in the winter, they would be females,” Dumbacher said.

Female reindeer need antlers to fend off males during the harsh winter when lichen is the most available food source found under patches of snow...

But it takes more than a pair of sharp antlers to find lichen.

Researchers used to think reindeer used only their sense of smell to find the mossy substance. But now at least one hypothesis holds that the animal’s ability to see objects in the spectrum of ultraviolet light helps guide them toward a modest winter meal.

Because humans can’t see objects in UV, the exhibit includes a set of reindeer goggles visitors can use to get an idea of what the world looks like to the animal.

Reindeer are migratory, capable of travelling up to 3,000 miles in a year to graze on abundant food during the spring and summer and return to cold northern climates during winter.

This exhibit focuses on the Porcupine herd, named for the river that courses through reindeer habitat in Alaska and Canada.

Reindeer are not endangered or protected in their northern habitat but are protected in the woodlands of Idaho and other areas south of the arctic, Debaucher said.

Hunting and loss of habitat are cited as the cause of declines in some herds. And the animals are hunted extensively in Siberia, Debaucher said.

Visitors will experience simulated snowfalls in the academy’s palazzo and can enter a giant snowman theater where kids can learn more about reindeer and the changes that take place during winter.

Academy members will have access to several holiday programs including “Tour of the Night Sky,” exploring the winter star patterns over San Francisco this time of year. The program is shown on Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. in the Planetarium.

Kids can make holiday crafts including a Caribou out of recycled corks and twigs at “Family Nature Crafts” from 10 a.m. to noon on Sundays at the academy swamp.

The first hour 10 a.m.-11 a.m. is for members only.

A series of holiday concerts featuring everything from jazz to carolers to a string quartet will be held throughout the month at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.

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