Journey North Home Page Journey North Home Page Journey North Maps Explore Caribou Resources Report Your Sightings! FAQ's About Caribou About "On Vacation" Species

Frequently Asked Questions
Students Ask and Experts Answer
Ways to use in the Classroom

Anatomy/Characteristics of Caribou

Q. How big is the caribou?
A barren-ground caribou is a medium-sized mammal with long legs and large hoofs. Porcupine bulls (males) average a shoulder height of 112 cm (44 in). Cows (females) average a shoulder height of 194 cm (41 in).

Q. How much does a caribou weigh?
Porcupine bulls (males) average 125 kg (275 lbs) in weight and cows (females) average 89 kg (196 lbs).

Q. How do you tell the male (bull) from the female (cow)?
Because both sexes have antlers it can be difficult determining the sex of the younger aged animals that have similar antler growth. Mature cows are smaller than mature bulls. An older bull will generally have a conspicuous neck mane visible from the front and side The best feature for identifying the sex of the caribou is the presence or absence of a patch of dark hair around the vulva or a penis sheath.

Q. Is a caribou the same animal as a reindeer?
A caribou is sometimes called a reindeer. All are classified as Rangifer tarandus, but there are 5 subspecies. Porcupine caribou are classified as Rangifer tarandus granti. Reindeer are a
domesticated variety of caribou that are herded by humans and used for pulling sleds. Most reindeer occur in Scandinavia and Siberia. They generally are smaller and have shorter legs than their wild relatives. In Siberia, caribou are referred to as "wild" reindeer.

Q. How is the caribou adapted for living in the snow and cold?
The body of the caribou is completely covered in a thick coat of hollow guard hairs and fine crinkly underfur. The air cells in the hollow hair act as an insulating layer to keep in the body heat. Even the muzzle (the part of the head that includes the nowe and mouth) and the tail are fully furred.

Q. How are their feet adapted for snow and cold?
The hooves (feet) of caribou are another good example of adaption to their environment. The hooves are very large and wide like snowshoes which help support the caribou when walking in the snow. As additional protection in the winter the edges of the tows grow longer to make a horny rim that the anials can walk on instead of the soft fleshy pad. The pads shrink and hair between the toes grows longer to cover them. This sharp-edged large hoof are good for digging through the deep snow to find food.

Q. Do both male and female caribou have antlers?
Yes. Caribou are unique among deer in that both male and female have antlers. The bull's antlers are usually larger and more complex than the female's antlers. Some cows (about 3-5%) do not grow antlers at all (called "bald" or "poled"). Antler shape varies greatly and it is said that no two sets are exactly alike.

Q. How much do antlers weigh?
A cow's antlers average about 270 g

Q. How long do the caribou keep their antlers?
Every year the caribou grow a new set of antlers from two permanent stumps of bone (pedicles) on the head.

Q. Do caribou rely on their eyesight for survival?
Caribou have large eyes located on the sides of their head so they can see in almost every direction except to their rear. They have a lot of rods in their eyes so they see well in poor light. They have very few cones in comparison so do not see colors well in poor light. They are very good at detecting movement.

Q.Caribou have big noses, does this mean they have a good sense of smell?
Their sharpest sense appears to be the sense of smell. A cow can recognize her calf by its smell.Caribou will try to identify an unknown by traveling downwind in a characteristic trot with their heads held high to test the wind for scents.When in danger, a caribou will rear up on their hind legs and deposit a scent from their tarsal glands. Other caribou in the area will smell this and be alerted of the danger.