The Disappearing Woodland Caribou of North America

Learn about the desperate efforts to save the few endangered woodland caribou that remained in the lower-48 states in 1986.

| January/February 1986

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    Caribou have been disappearing from the lower-48 states for the past century.
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    A North American caribou scavenges for food in the grassland.

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Here's a thought to chew on: If you were a wild ungulate attempting to earn a wintertime living off barren, snow-blanketed terrain, what the heck would you eat? Think about it: There'd be no summertime grasses, sedges, or forbs to graze, and no brush to browse; nothing in sight but snow, ice, and cold, cold rocks.

Give up? Well, woodland caribou — the wild Ungula­ta in question — can't afford to give up, so they eat those scaly little symbiotic relation­ships between algae and fungi that we know as lichens. In the far north of Canada and Alaska, the Barren Ground subspecies paws down through the snow to reach its dinner (from which trait comes the name caribou, meaning "shoveler" in the Micmac Indian tongue), or gnaws lichens from the faces of exposed rocks.

Life is a bit easier for the woodland caribou subspecies, which inhabits the meteorologically more moderate, mature conifer forests extending from southern Canada down into the northwestern U.S. These animals have only to nibble at the arboreal lichen that hangs like cotton candy from the limbs of subalpine fir and old-growth Engelmann spruce. In this case, deep snow — it accumu­lates to a depth of up to 20 feet in some areas — is actually an aid to the caribou, since it serves as a step-ladder allowing them to har­vest high-hung lichens that would, in less se­vere weather, be out of reach.

The caribou (Rangifer tarandus) — the same species is known in Europe as the reindeer — came to North America via the Bering Land Bridge less than a million years ago. Exceed­ed in size only by its cousins the moose and elk, the caribou is the third-largest member of the Cervidae (deer) family, with the wood­land caribou (the largest of several subspecies) averaging 85 inches nose to tail, standing some 55 inches at the shoulders, and weigh­ing up to 400 pounds.

The caribou is unique among deer in that both sexes carry antlers, though the headgear of the bulls is larger, heavier, and more or­nate than that worn by the cows. A mature bull caribou's antlers are palmated (having tips that are broad and flat, roughly resem­bling a human hand with the fingers spread), with the main beams stretching to a maxi­mum length of 60 inches or so. But the most interesting and unusual characteristic of a bull caribou's antlers is the "shovel" — a broad, vertically palmated secondary beam that grows forward and down over the animal's brow, often extending as far forward as the tip of the nose.

In order for caribou to stay afloat as they move across deep snow and traverse the wet, spongy tundra that forms the Barren Ground species' summer range, nature has provided the animals with elongated dewclaws and out­sized, almost perfectly round hooves. Caribou are strong and intrepid swimmers, often plunging into the open ocean, where they ride high in the water and employ their broad hooves as paddles to propel them swiftly to offshore islands.

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