Caribou. History and Identification. Characteristics

Caribou are members of the ungulate group, and date from the Pleistocene times. Each of the three species has been broken down as follows:

History. The Indian-named caribou, incorrectly called "reindeer" by the general public, has been separated in to three distinct species—Barren Ground , mountain, and woodland — but the general characteristics are the same in all three.

At the present time the caribou is the most numerous of the big-game animals in Alaska, and is protected by large refuges. At the turn of the century, there were millions, but the present population has dwindled to about one-half million. This animal is still retreating to the peaceful, vast Arctic regions. No longer do winter herds of thousands up on thousands migrate hundreds of miles southward from the Arctic for food and shelter at the timber line.

Man , the wolf, and the reindeer are rapidly reducing his numbers, for he is widely hunted for food by trappers, Indians, and Eskimos, as his succulent meat is considered the "beef of the Arctic." Because he travels in the open and is readily seen, he is easily hunted. He also is sought for his hide, which often is the primary source of clothing to the natives of the Far North. The caribou has been affected by encroaching civilization, since its habit of extensive wandering requires a large range.

The influx of farming, mining, road and airport building has restricted its range and increased the hunting pressure on the herds. Native hunters now use high-powered rifles, and the airplane has brought caribou hunting within the reach of anyone who can afford it.

The timber wolf has always been the enemy of the caribou. Where the caribou runs, the wolf follows. Extensive predator control by the Canadian Wild life Service, the Alaska Game and Fish Department, and the U. S. Fish and Wild life Service has reduced wolf predation to a secondary factor in the maintenance of the caribou herds.

Between 1891 and 1902 great numbers of reindeer were imported from Siberia in an effort to convert the hunting Eskimo into a herdsman. The smaller, domesticated reindeer was put on the same range with wild caribou, and some hybridization took place. The greatest threat was overgrazing in some localities.

At one time, woodland caribou were common in the northern states, especially Maine and New Hampshire. The reason for their disappearance was the logging of the virgin timber in that area, along with the attendant meat hunting to supply the needs of the logging crews. The changes in habitat favored the spread of the white-tailed deer but worked against the caribou.

Stone's Caribou

Identification. The identifying characteristic of the caribou is his magnificent antlers. The caribou is the only member of the deer family in which both male and female are antlered, with even a one-month-old fawn bearing a spike. The length, weight, and palmation of the antlers vary with different species, but on the average they are slightly palmated on both sexes and have distinctive "shovel" of brow tines projecting down over the face. The main beams bend back, then forward and up, in "rocking-chair" fashion, ending in a palm with small tines. The antlers of the male average much larger than those of the female; the male's are larger in proportion to his body than those of any deer.

Each year the antlers are shed, with the old bulls losing them in early winter or late fall, the young males and does keeping them up to May. The general appearance of all three caribou species is not very distinctive one from the other, and often it is difficult to differentiate between them.

An average weight might be put at 300 to 400 pounds, length 76 inches, and height at shoulders 42 to 48 inches for the male, which is typically larger than the female, though in Alaska some animals scale from 500 to 600 pounds. T h e female averages from 150 to 250 pounds.

Coloration among the caribou does not vary to an extensive degree, but is more pronounced with the change of seasons. Brown is his normal coloration and all seasonal changes are variations of that color, with the white trimmings. In winter, his grayish brown coat is typically whitish along his belly, with a yellowish-white neck, throat, and muzzle, and clean white circling just above his broad flat hooves, and a white rump patch. In spring, this generally-brown tone fades and becomes more whitish, but again in summer and fall is darker.

1. The Barren Ground caribou, smallest of the three species, with an average length of about 7 feet and weight of 200 to 300 pounds, is characterized by his size and his pale, rangy antlers with three to four palmations.

The Barren Ground caribou is identified by subspecies as follows:

BARREN GROUND CARIBOU : Smaller in size and paler in color (especially in the summer) than other members of the species, having slender horns with little palmation.

GRANT CARIBOU : Smaller and darker than average.

GREENLAND CARIBOU : Small and pale with simple antlers.

LABRADOR BARREN GROUND CARIBOU : More true to its type than the Barren Ground , but having a distinguishing characteristic of recurving tips of well-formed brow and bez tines.

OSBORN CARIBOU : Authorities differ as to its classification. It has been considered by some as belonging to the mountain caribou, and the greatest of all the caribou by virtue of its size and its massive flattened antlers. Its weight is not typical of this group, since the bulls often weigh from 500 to 600 pounds. It is the largest and darkest of the species.

STONE'S CARIBOU : Second in size and darkness to the Osborn is this species, often from 300 to 400 pounds; large antlers.

PEARY CARIBOU : Lightest of all caribou, almost white with "a small patch of light grayish brown (almost lilac) along back from shoulders to rump" ; about 7 feet in length.

DWARF CARIBOU : Some authorities consider it extinct. Small, with poorly developed antlers; different from other caribou by color which is an even, dull brown, free of white or black.

The record Barren Ground caribou was killed by Zack Elbow near Nain , Labrador , in 1931. Its antlers measured in inches: length of main beam -right 60 1/ 2 , left 61 1/ 8 ; inside spread— 58 ¼; circumference of smallest place between brow and bez points—right left 6 1/2; length of brow points -right 14 1/2, left 21 1/4; width of brow points—right 9, left 14 3/4; number of points—right 22, left 30— for a score of 474 3/4 .

Typical Hoofprints of the Caribou , standing and walking

Characteristics. The caribou has been characterized by many as stupid, but that term has been applied because he has never learned to distrust man. Unlike the confined, easily accessible whitetail deer, he lives on a wide, changing range primarily in Alaska and the Arctic tundra. He often advances to investigate a man , curious and unafraid, and friendly fawns have followed canoeing hunters along the river bank.

Since he is herd-bound, he does not develop the wariness of the solitary animal. The most gregarious of all the deer family, he relies on the safety of numbers. However , caribou are characteristically unpredictable and sometimes bolt at the scent of man, especially the restless bull just before the rutting season.

Some naturalists report the movement of caribou herds as being aimless wanderings, without purpose or direction, but other authorities defend their rangings on the grounds that they are seasonal migrations, dependent up on food and climate. Of all the caribou, the Barren Ground moves about the most, when herds of many thousands travel from one range to another in search of food. The mountain caribou is less migratory because his range is more limited, and he confines himself to feeding on the mountains at timberline, leaving only to seek the shelter of the lower ground in bad weather. He does not travel in the large herd, typical of the Barren Ground , but bands in winter in small groups of a dozen, or less, and in the summer often runs alone.

One of the most interesting features of the caribou is his striking running gait. He usually goes at an easy trot, a pace which he can effortlessly maintain for as far as 60 miles over swamps and rocky ground. However, he tires easily at a gallop. While in his typical mincing pace, he holds his head erect, his back straight, and his tail level. A running herd makes a peculiar clicking noise which has never been convincingly explained. Some think it is from the ankle joints knocking together, others that it comes from the joints within the feet. While running, the cows and calves call to each other with a grunting sound, and while running the tails often are held high, similar to those of the whitetail deer.

 






Date added: 2022-12-11; views: 318;


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