Barren Ground Caribou – Rangifer tarandus

Tags: North America, caribou, herbivore, tundra, ungulate

Barren Ground Caribou

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Photo by Bauer, Irwin and Peggy 2010
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The barren ground caribou is a migratory animal that spends its life walking thousands of miles in large herds between winter and summer ranges. This allows it to search for the best food and most preferable habitat for each season. In the summer it prefers the open tundra where it can eat fresh grasses and escape insect predators with help of the wind. In the winter the taiga forest offers cover from the wind and a more abundant supply of buds and lichens.

What do barren ground caribou look like?

Caribou are members of the deer family. Both males and females have antlers. Caribou have hollow hair which provides excellent insulation against the cold and added flotation when swimming. Caribou are good swimmers. Their big hooves help them swim into the current of rivers. Their big hooves also act like snowshoes in the winter, preventing them from sinking down into the snow.

What do barren ground caribou eat?

The word caribou may come from the Micmac word ‘xalibo’ which means “the one that paws through the snow for its food.” Caribou have a keen sense of smell that helps them find food through the snow in winter. Caribou have special digestive enzymes that allow them to digest lichen. Lichen is a much more abundant food source in winter when snow and ice cover the ground because it grows on trees and rocks. During fall and winter they eat lichens, dried sedges, and small shrubs. During summer, caribou eat the leaves of willows, sedges, flowering tundra plants, and mushrooms. Caribou will sometimes eat meat and bone although they are herbivores. They often eat discarded antlers and when lemmings are abundant they will eat lemmings (small rodents).

What eats barren ground caribou?

The caribou’s main predators are wolves and humans. Caribou is a major food source for the native inhabitants of Canada; including the Dene, Tłı̨chǫ, and Inuit peoples.

You can read about Dave and Amy’s experience of traveling through caribou habitat here.

Additional Images:

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Forsyth, Adrian.  Mammals of North America: Temperate and Arctic Riegons.  Firefly Books Ltd. 1999.

Taylor, Barbara.  Arctic and Antarctic.  Dorling Kindersly, London 1995.



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