Written by Bernice

Modified & Updated: 17 May 2024

Sherman Smith

Reviewed by Sherman Smith

Majestic caribou bull

Have you ever spotted a deer species and asked yourself the difference between a caribou vs reindeer? A caribou is a large elk-looking reindeer, while a reindeer is the domesticated version of the caribou. Scientists both put the caribou and the reindeer under Rangifer Tarandus. It’s because of their many mirror-like similarities. An example would be them being Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates), and that they find food, give birth, and live in herds. Still, there’s a lot about them that remains different, and it’s enough to split them into two categories. Being confused regarding both species because of their special situation is also pretty natural.

Before we get into the differences between the caribou vs reindeer, we should also discuss their differences with the deer. Take note that the difference between a deer vs reindeer is the climate in where they live. Deers prefer climates with fewer winter months than the reindeer. An example of a deer is the white-tailed deer that lives in North America. In other words, deers cannot survive in the arctic tundra.

There are so many other reindeer facts and caribou facts that can be discussed. So what are we waiting for? Fun facts about caribou vs reindeer, and their differences, await you below!

Table of Contents

Caribou vs Reindeer: Origin

The origins of the caribou and reindeer are extremely different, and a significant cause of their split is evolution.

Caribou only live in North America.

Caribou herd crosses ridgeline
Image from Adobe Stock

North Americans can often find Caribou thanks to them being endemic only to that area. In their natural habitat, caribou form herds. In fact, there are thirty-two caribou herds in Alaska alone. They are nomadic by nature and constantly move from place to place in order to find food. During the winter, they move to boreal forests and migrate to coastal areas for calving.

Reindeer can be found in Northern Europe and Asia.

Herd of reindeer
Image from Adobe Stock

Reindeer are caribou that have been domesticated over the years. People can find them in Northern Europe and Asia. The relationship the reindeer and humans have is a history of production. As a result of them living with humans, reindeer tend to stay in one particular area. Researchers have also noticed the difference in their diet when it comes to non-pregnant female reindeer and a pregnant one (the pregnant one having a larger belly and heavier appetite.)

The Reindeer Niche.

The Reindeer niche is the effect of the reindeer in a location. They become important prey, and predators such as wolves, bears, and other hungry animals, depend on them as a food source in order to survive. It is described as a dramatic effect on their location.

Caribou have never been domesticated.

It would be an exaggeration if we were to say that the caribou and reindeer were separated over a million years ago. Humans began domesticating caribou with an exchange of benefits. Tribesmen fed and protected caribou, who would then become meat for them during the winter. Other than meat, they would then turn the domesticated caribou’s antlers into household items, their hides to keep warm in, and of course, they were also made companions. In the end, the domesticated caribou strengthened into a different subspecies: the reindeer.

Caribou vs Reindeer: Physical Appearance

For the caribou vs reindeer, what you can see with the naked eye can help you spot the difference. The first thing we need to do in order to find the difference between similarly-looking animals is through their physical appearance. While there may not be much, there’s still enough to have an accurate guess.

Both reindeer and caribou females also grow antlers.

The female reindeer’s antlers grow in contrast to the other deer species. Since both the caribou and reindeer are genetically the same, they are two of the very few that do. The reason for their antlers is to protect their food during scarcity when they get pregnant in the winter.

Reindeer have thicker fur.

reindeer in its natural environment in scandinavia
Image from Adobe Stock

While caribou may have medium dense hair to thin hair, the reindeer have always had thick fur. Again, this has a lot to do with the domestication of reindeer. Caribou are much more nomadic, whereas the reindeer prefer to remain in one area. Because of this, caribou have thinner fur than the reindeer in order to adapt to the climate changes of every area they go to. It is important to take note that both the reindeer and the caribou can survive harsh winters regardless of their fur thickness.

Reindeer are larger than caribou.

An educated guess about the reindeer’s large stature is because of them being domesticated. Additionally, since they were fed every day and were well taken care of, the reindeer grew bigger than the caribou, who had to scavenge for food and be exposed to predators. However, there are still some cases when caribou bulls are larger than reindeer bulls. On the other hand, and in very rare cases, both the caribou and the reindeer are of the same size.

Caribou vs Reindeer: Behavioral Traits

The behavior of the reindeer and the caribou are different because of their origins and their preferred lifestyles. While they may not be easy to spot in one sitting, they can still greatly aid this caribou vs reindeer debate regarding their polaric behavior.

Reindeer may migrate, but prefer a sedentary lifestyle.

Reindeer can be found in the boreal forest of Greenland (including woodland caribou), parts of northern Europe, Alaska, and Canada. Their sedentary lifestyle is most likely because of their domestication. Unlike the caribou that prefer to travel from one place to another, reindeer prefer to stay close to one particular area that they have become accustomed to. If we go by their relationship with humans, the reindeer would naturally stick close to the humans who feed them. This behavior has remained permanent to the species.

Caribou are famous for their long migration.

Regardless of whether you’re into animals, the view of the caribou’s famous migration is a sight to behold. In the Denali National Park, there lies the famous Denali Caribou herd. There are over 1,760 caribou living in the park that you may witness migrating across the northern side of the Alaska Range. You can find them in North America, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Contrary to popular belief, the Flat Creek Inn area in Wyoming has elk viewing and not caribou.

Denali National Park
Image source: Unsplash

Reindeer breed earlier than the caribou.

Breeding season is different for reindeer and caribou. People discovered that the reindeer breed four months ahead of the caribou. This is because the birthing season for reindeer almost always starts around the month of April. A female caribou would give birth to her calf around the end of August, which would result in the caribou breeding later than the other.

Caribou vs Reindeer: Cultural and Medical Significance

The cultural and medical significance of the caribou and the reindeer expand more than just symbols. They have become beneficial to both health, trade, and even culture.

The Soyot people of Russia have a special connection with reindeer.

The Soyot people practice the oldest form of reindeer herding. Their relationship with reindeer expands more than just a lifestyle, but as a cultural tradition. Soyot people originate from Lake Baikal and have been proven by archeologists to have continuously practiced their herding. Under Joseph Stalin’s reign, the practice was discontinued and the Soyot people were forced out of their homes. The good news is that, with communism having been disbanded, the Soyot people have become free to return home and relearn their traditional way of life.

Lake Baikal: The Soyot Tribe's home
Image source: Unsplash

People come to visit the caribou to see them migrate.

Caribou migration is a famous tourist attraction. The largest caribou herd migrating is the Western Arctic Herd, or WAH for short. Over two hundred and fifty-nine thousand caribou migrated in this area in the year 2017. There are many tourist spots for caribou migration sightings because of their long-distance travel.

Caribou are a symbol in the Ojibwe tribe.

The Ojibwe tribe considered the caribou as a symbol of marvelous travels. There is a legend in the Ojibwe tribe where a person is able to witness a caribou walk on water. Learning from the animal, the tribesmen became able to walk across the water as well and learn to hunt across the body of water. Scientists have recently discovered that there are physical artifacts and evidence supporting the tribesmen who have managed to hunt in the caribou territory surrounding Lake Huron.

The Chippewa and Algonquin consider them as symbols of quick wit and vigilance necessary for survival. As an animal totem, a caribou is a symbol for life itself.

There is also a legend about the Caribou Man.

Inuit tribes have passed down the story of an animal master known as the Caribou Man. It is said that the Caribou Man had fallen in love with a female caribou and became a caribou himself. Most of the Inuit tribes know that the Caribou Man watches over the way they hunt caribou. If any of the tribe members incorrectly practice the traditional way of hunting caribou, famine will spread across the land.

Reindeer as a symbol.

Reindeer are a symbol of wisdom, cleverness, resourcefulness, innovation, and creativity. They are also praised for their quick wit. Reindeer are more family-oriented as an animal totem. Because they live in large groups, communication and guidance is an important role in their way of survival.

There’s a coffee company named Caribou Coffee.

Kimberly and John Puckett climbed Denali National Park as they discussed wanting to build a company that helped people escape their mundane life of grinding for money. They spotted a herd of caribou on their descent and decided to name their coffee company after the serene view they had of the creatures.

Santa’s Reindeer and the significance.

When it comes to Santa Claus, reindeer play a significant role in his quest to deliver every present to obedient children all over the world. The most famous reindeer is arguably Rudolph from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Song.

Rudolph the red nose reindeer
Image from Adobe Stock

Caribou vs Reindeer: Dishes

For humans, food is more than just a basic necessity. It’s also an art and form of communication. Good food recipes are traditionally being passed down from one family to the next. In some cases, they have even been passed down through cultures.

Many indigenous tribes consume caribou meat.

Many Alaskan tribes depend on caribou meat for thousands of years. The earliest of them would be the Dene tribe. Archeologists theorized the Dene would even follow the caribou wherever they would go. Caribou was a substantial source of survival in the earlier days because of their hide, antlers, and meat. The Netsilik Inuit and the Copper Inuit also depended on the consumption of caribou meat.

Reindeer meat is quite healthy.

The benefits of reindeer meat are both economical and healthy for people. Reindeer meat has the same nutrition status as fish because of its low-fat content and high vitamin properties. It’s also very lean and the fatty acids are beneficial. In terms of economic trading, fish tends to spoil faster, making reindeer meat easier to transfer to less urban areas and locations that are distant from modern cities.

Raw reindeer meat
Image from Adobe Stock

Northern Norwegians love reindeer meat.

The Sami people of Norway enjoy a diet of reindeer meat almost every day. Their traditional recipes include bidos (reindeer stew), gurpi (cured reindeer meat), and renskav (fried reindeer with mushrooms.) The average Norwegian would only consume about three hundred grams of reindeer meat a year because of the lack of import and export trade.


We hope you enjoyed learning about the differences between the caribou vs reindeer. Unfortunately, because of climate change, both the caribou and the reindeer have become endangered. The change of weather, because of our constant pollution, threatens the lives of reindeer, caribou, and other animals. Should there be no action to prevent climate change, the peaceful life of both the caribou and reindeer will cease to exist. Hopefully, time will heal the environment they all live in.

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