Contrary to popular belief, reindeer cannot fly. I know, I know! I’m destroying Christmas here. The truth, however, is even more interesting. Reindeer may not be able to fly, but they sure know how to get high. More on that later.
The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), also known as the caribou, is a small member of the deer family found throughout the Arctic and Subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Reindeer travel in large herds and are well known for their extreme migrations. Some subspecies have been found to move as far as 3,100 miles in a single year. To do this, they obviously need to be able to cover huge amounts of land in a relatively short period of time. Running seems the best way to accomplish this and they do in fact excel at it. These animals can reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour when they are at a full sprint and can easily swim at 4 mph if it is necessary to cross water.
In the summer when reindeer move to the tundra to feed and give birth, they are plagued by swarms of bloodsucking black flies and mosquitoes. This can sometimes drive them crazy, causing members of the herd to bolt and run wildly to escape the onslaught. The stress from these biting insects is so intense that it can sometimes even inhibit their feeding and ability to give birth normally. In extreme cases black flies can drain enough blood from the animals to fatally weaken them. However, biting insects are not the only predators of reindeer; they also face larger predators. Calves are often taken by golden eagles and wolverines while gray wolves take care of the adults. Wolves are the most important reindeer predator and have an enormous impact on populations throughout their range. They keep numbers in check and rid the herds of sick and weak animals, helping a healthy and genetically diverse population continue.
Not only do predators rely on reindeer, humans have used them for hundreds of years as well for transport, meat, hide, milk, and antlers. Many nomadic people would travel with their semi-domesticated herds along their annual migration routes and tend to them along the way. In Siberia, reindeer are ridden and used to pull sleds. Their hides and meat were also sold as a source of income and many reindeer breeders still use the animals as an important economic commodity.
Now we get to the flying. How did that come about? There are lots of theories about how that myth started, and none of them are confirmed. The one that seems most likely and makes the most sense, however, is one related to a small, red and white psychedelic mushroom. Many of us know it from Super Mario Brothers, though there are countless other depictions of it. Reindeer are familiar with it too, as it grows all over the Northern Hemisphere within their range.
The Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, is toxic and can be fatal in high doses such as 15 caps, but reindeer are still known to eat them occasionally and the results are hysterical. Due to the psychoactive toxins, specifically muscimol, reindeer that consume these mushrooms tend to leap and prance about like drunken idiots for a while until the effects wear off. People also eat A. muscaria for recreation, though it is generally not considered the safest or most desirable psychedelic mushroom to use. It is easy to see how some Siberian reindeer herders could have been out with their herd one day and saw some of their animals eating these mushrooms and tripping. They might have thought Hey! Those guys look like they’re feeling really good. I should try some of that. So they did and then they were just sitting together watching the reindeer flip out and one of them was like “Dude. Hey, dude. Are you seeing this? Those reindeer are totally flying!” and the other replied “Yeah, man! That’s so trippy! We should tie a sled to them and then we can fly too.”
Again, there is no confirmation that these are the circumstances that led to the idea of flying reindeer, but it is true that these animals do eat mushrooms like this and behave in the ways described. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a herder observing these behaviors, eating a mushroom, and then hallucinating while watching his herd.
Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and all that stuff.
Please enjoy these hilarious animations of incredibly derpy (maybe ‘shroom high?) reindeer by Mel Roach:
1. “Rangifer Tarandus.” Red List. IUCN Red List, n.d. Web. 25 June 2015. <http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/29742/0>.
2. Hagemoen, Rolf Iver M., and Eigil Reimers. “Reindeer summer activity pattern in relation to weather and insect harassment.” Journal of Animal Ecology 71.5 (2002): 883-892.
3. Walker, Matt. “Eagles Filmed Hunting Reindeer.” BBC News. BBC, 20 Oct. 2009. Web. 25 June 2015. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8314000/8314558.stm>.
4. “Evenki Reindeer Herding: A History.” Cultural Survival. Culturalsurvival.org, n.d. Web. 25 June 2015. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.culturalsurvival.org%2Fpublications%2Fcultural-survival-quarterly%2Frussia%2Fevenki-reindeer-herding-history>.
5. Wasson, R. Gordon. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. 240. Print.
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