The great state of Alaska boasts a healthy population of caribou. During a visit to Denali National Park in central Alaska, we saw caribou several times.
A large ruminant mammal in the deer family, Rangifer tarandus are the North American species; they occupy a substantial range in Alaska and Canada (see maps below).
Equipped with large antlers for shoveling snow and specialized nasal passages that warm incoming frigid air, this mammal lives in the coldest areas of North America.
Upon first setting eyes on the caribou, it is the antlers that command your attention–an impressive rack. The caribou shed the rack very year, so the Denali Visitor Center had discarded racks out for viewing; they were so heavy I could barely pick up one by myself.
In this species, unlike all the other mammals in the deer family, both genders grow antlers.
Other interesting facts about the Denali caribou:
- Their color varies, the coat changing with the seasons
- Their coat consists of two layers, for thorough insulation
- Size: 4′ tall at shoulder (1.22 m); 8′ in length (2.5 m)
- Weight: Bulls 350-400 lbs (159-182 kg); Cows 175-225 lbs (80-120 kg)
- They migrate in large herds, usually through adverse conditions
We occasionally came upon them while hiking, and although their size is intimidating, the caribou are gentle animals. We let them graze, and they let us marvel at their beauty and strength.
Some caribou subspecies have gone extinct or are diminishing for various reasons. In America, for example, it is very rare to see a caribou unless you go to Alaska.
According to Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, there are 32 herds in Alaska/Canada, estimating 950,000 individuals.
In Denali National Park, the 2013 census count recorded 2,230 caribou. In the park they are, in general, protected.
Other parts of Alaska, however, allow regulated hunting and harvesting of caribou.
While caribou live in many parts of the world, we call them different names depending on where one lives. In the U.S., this mammal is called a caribou; unless they are domesticated, in which case they are called reindeer. In Europe, caribou are called reindeer.
Whatever you call them, they are a strikingly beautiful mammal with a hardy lifestyle and elegant antlers.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander