The truth about reindeer

Reputation: Reindeer have red glowing noses and live in an unforgiving environment where food is hard to find in the winter, and where keeping warm is a major challenge

Reality: Reindeer, with one notable exception, don't have red noses. But they do have pretty sophisticated heat exchangers inside their snozzles. They also have plenty to eat through the Arctic winter. And their coats are so warm and thick that they are more likely to overheat than freeze

This time of year, reindeer get a lot of airtime. But beyond their role as the seasonal sleigh-pullers of cards and carols, reindeer are iconic animals of the North - perfectly adapted for a life of extremes.

"It is often reported that these animals live a knife edge existence in the cold, dark north," says Nicholas Tyler of the Centre for Sami Studies at the University of Tromso, Norway. When he first began his reindeer research in the 1970s, the prevailing thought was that "the Arctic was a terrible place, and plants and animals living in the Arctic were hanging on by their toes".

What's emerged in the past 35 years of research is an understanding that "the overwhelming majority of all individuals of all the Arctic species go through winter warm and well fed", says Tyler.

The reindeer - Rangifer tarandus - is a perfect example.

Reindeer "are beautifully adapted", says Tyler, who has spent decades studying them in Svalbard, the isolated archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

Reindeer coats are incredibly insulating, he explains.

Each year, they shed their thick winter coat for a short summer one. So, explains Tyler, it's only in summer - when Svalbard temperatures can dip to 1C - that this population of reindeer may occasionally be cold.

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