If you’re feeling exciting about Christmas being over because it means you won’t have to listen to any more songs about jingling bells, Santa Claus a-comin’ and Rudolph with his nose so bright, your hearing about all that has not been in vain. Swedish scientists say they have found that reindeers’ noses really could glow red and fairly bright.
Using thermal imaging cameras, Swedish researchers have been able to see how reindeer emanate heat as they graze. While reindeers‘ bodies are kept warm by their fur, the images reveal that their noses glow a bright orange due to the large amounts of heat their noses release.
Just about a year ago, scientists from the Netherlands and Norway discovered (via a hand-held microscope that inspected the nasal lining of five healthy humans, two reindeer and a sixth person with a non-cancerous nasal growth) that reindeer have 25 per cent more blood vessels in their noses than humans do. The blood vessels are rich with oxygen-carrying cells and help to control the antlered animal’s body temperature, a necessary function given their habitat in Arctic and Subarctic regions.
Reindeers’ lips also contain a high concentration of blood vessels, to keep these and their noses sensitive while searching through snow for food. This activity results in a reindeer’s mule or snout acquiring a reddish color in cold weather, says Ronald Kröger, a zoologist at Lund University in Sweden. As he also notes,
“When reindeer are feeding, their mules are exposed to very low temperatures as they look for food under the snow. They need to maintain sensitivity in order to know what they’re actually eating.
“They pump warm blood into the mule which means it can be a bit reddish because of this strong blood flow.”
Kröger’s investigations using thermal cameras extends to other animals, including dogs. It’s research undertaken with a view to understand how animals’ physiology operates in ways that are not visible to the human eye. Dogs, as he points out, are “the exact opposite to reindeer. Nobody knows why their noses are cold and why they have evolved that way.”
Kröger’s findings are a curious case in which fictive imaginings are confirmed by science. While most of us know Rudolph through the eponymous song, the red-nosed reindeer who comes to the rescue of Santa on one foggy Christmas Eve was created by Robert L. May in 1939 as part of an assignment for the now-defunct department store, Montgomery Ward. Rather than hand out Christmas coloring books it had purchased, the store decided to create its own. May first considered naming the heroic reindeer “Rollo” and “Reginald” before settling on Rudolph. 2.5 million copies of Rudolph’s story (written in the same meter as Clement Price’s poem ”‘Twas the Night Before Christmas“) were distributed in the first year.
It was not until some years later that Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law, turned Rudolph’s story into a song. Cowboy singer Gene Autry recorded the song, which became hit no. 1 on the BIllboard pop singles chart during Christmas week in 1949 and went on to sell a total of 25 million copies. It was the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s, assured of going down in history as the staple of children’s holiday concerts, radio stations and Christmas muzak mixes that we know it to be.
Lest you forget about reindeer after Christmas, it’s well to note that the International Fund for Animal Welfare has sought to have Arctic Reindeer listed as endangered species. There are thousands of reindeer in Norway but far fewer in Finland and Russia. About a million caribou exist in North America, especially in the Arctic, but only about 1,700 woodllands caribou (Rangifer tarandus), the species most associated with Christmas remain on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains. While legal hunting is forbidden, predation, habitat loss (due to logging) and recreation (especially backcountry snowmobiling) all have put their survival at risk.
Even more, the Arctic habitat of reindeers and caribou is threatened by climate change. As the Swedish scientists have found, it’s the cold weather that results in reindeers’ noses glowing. In an ever-warming world, it could be one day possible that red-nose reindeer no longer exist — except in the words of a song.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons