Northern caribou facts

What are caribou? 

Caribou are part of a larger family of animals (cervids) that includes deer and moose. They are found around the northern parts of the world, in forests, on mountains, and on the tundra. Across much of the European and Asian parts of their range they are known as reindeer. Whatever their common names, or wherever they are found, caribou are all the same species (Rangifer tarandus). This means they can and do interbreed.

There are officially seven subspecies of caribou. Experts recognize that the division of caribou into only these seven subspecies does not account for a lot of differences in the way the caribou look and act. Indigenous knowledge separates caribou into different groupings than the scientific classification. Scientific papers on caribou often note the need for a revision of the way caribou are classified. In the meantime, these are the subspecies generally used:

Some caribou are not officially subspecies, but seem to differ quite a lot from neighboring caribou in their appearance and genetic makeup. The Dolphin and Union herd is neither a barren-ground caribou, nor a Peary caribou, but has not been given an official subspecies designation. However, it is treated differently from the Peary and barren-ground caribou under federal and territorial legislation. As caribou face a changing environment, it is important to look after all of the genetically-diverse populations. That diversity is a source of strength in allowing the animals to adapt.

Caribou are well adapted to their northern home. They have thick fur to keep them warm. Both males and females have antlers, though the male’s antlers are much larger. Their broad hooves help them walk over packed snow, and also to dig through the snow in search of food. 

Why are caribou important?

For several northern Indigenous peoples (First Nations, Inuit, and Metis) caribou have been and remain a mainstay of their diets and cultures. Recent large declines in the numbers of caribou have caused severe hardship for people across the north.

Caribou are also important to the rest of the environment in which they live. They are prey for wolves, bears, wolverines, lynx and eagles, and they cycle nutrients across the landscape. 

How do caribou herds get their names?

Caribou herds are often named after the place they migrate to for calving. For instance, the famously confusing Porcupine herd is not some strange caribou/porcupine hybrid. It is named after the Porcupine River, a tributary of the Yukon River. Caribou have been known to infrequently switch herds, according to both Indigenous knowledge, and to information from satellite-collared female caribou. Some Indigenous people in the north would prefer that caribou not be divided into different herds, as this is not how they see the caribou.

What caribou are featured on this site?

This site is mostly about the migratory caribou herds that range across northern and Arctic Canada. The exception is the coverage of Peary Caribou that live on the Arctic islands. While the Peary caribou often move between different islands, they do not undertake the same sort of seasonal mass movements as migratory caribou. Some of these caribou herds such as the Porcupine herd have websites specifically devoted to them. If you only want information on a specific herd, we encourage you to visit the herd-specific sites, where it’s available.

There have been various efforts to sort caribou into meaningful groups, depending on where they live, genetics, and the way they look. Most of the caribou on this site fall into “designatable units” 1-4 according to a classification system developed by The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) 

How are caribou different from reindeer? 

Caribou are not different from reindeer in that they are the same species, Rangifer tarandus. The big difference is that some reindeer have been semi-domesticated across parts of their range, from Northern Norway, to the Russian far east.  There is some disagreement as to where and when reindeer domestication arose, but it is generally agreed to be thousands of years old. Reindeer herds and herders (usually Sami people) were imported to other places, including Alaska, Newfoundland, Baffin Island in Nunavut, the Area around Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, and the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories. The descendants of the Mackenzie delta herd are the only surviving reindeer herd in northern Canada, with a few thousand individuals. The herd is owned by a descendant of one of the Sami herders who brought it from Alaska. 

Where are the caribou found?

See a map of the range of the caribou that are the focus of the site.

Some caribou such as the Peary Caribou typically do not move very far from where they were born. Migratory caribou sometimes travel very far over the course of a year.

Why do some caribou migrate?

Barren-Ground caribou, and the Dolphin and Union herd migrate to find preferred foods and weather conditions, and to avoid predators such as wolves that are more common around the treeline. The Barren-ground herds tend to migrate to areas near the coast in the springtime. The coastal plains provide relative safety from predators and much needed nourishment from spring plant growth soon after  the caribou give birth. 

Of the five longest-distance migrations by land animals, four of those distance records are held by caribou in northern canada. The fifth is held by caribou in Alaska. The top two herds (the Bathurst and Porcupine herds) travel about 1,350 kilometers (as the crow flies) between their summer and winter ranges. When migrating, they walk at about 7 km/hr, covering between 20 and 65 km a day.

The Dolphin and Union herd moves between Victoria Island and the mainland twice a year, a distance of more than 20 kilometres across the sea ice. Peary caribou move relatively short distances seasonally between lower and higher ground. Sometimes they move between different islands.

How different are the caribou from each other?

Caribou from different subspecies can look quite different from each other. For instance Peary Caribou have shorter legs and faces than barren-ground caribou, and their coats are mostly white in the winter time. Barren-ground caribou are mostly brown, with white necks and bellies. The Dolphin and Union caribou are a little larger and darker than Peary caribou, but smaller, and lighter in colour than barren-ground caribou.  Caribou from the same subspecies can also look somewhat different from each other. Indigenous people who are very familiar with different herds have been known to tell them apart based on factors such as their size, body shape and colouring.

What do the caribou eat?

What caribou eat depends on their range and the season. Generally speaking, they eat grasses, flowering plants, mushrooms, and birch and willow leaves in the summer, and feed mostly on lichens in the winter. Peary caribou sometime eat so much of a particular flowering plant (purple saxifrage) that their muzzles are stained purple.

What is the international state of caribou? 

An assessment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2015 that lumped together all wild caribou and reindeer classified them as vulnerable.  The assessment estimated that there are fewer than 3 million mature animals left, and that the population has dropped by about 40% over the past few decades. The information on numbers and trends internationally is variable, as some populations are not often counted. There is an international organization that tracks the status of the large migratory herds of caribou and reindeer called CARMA (CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment Network).

What is the conservation status of Arctic caribou?

What does “conservation status” mean? 

In Canada, conservation status can mean a designation under the federal Species at Risk Act. These designations mean:

The Northwest Territories also has a Species at Risk Act. The Species at Risk (NWT) Act and the federal Species at Risk Act are complementary to each other. Having a territorial Act allows concerns about species to be addressed at the NWT level. Sometimes, the status of species in the NWT can be different from the status in Canada as a whole. The actions needed to protect the species can be different too.

Extirpated or extinct? 

See the conservation status of Canadian caribou