How do reindeer find enough food in the tundra?

By: Cristen Conger

Reindeer Diet

In the winter, reindeer dig lichen out from under the snow for food.
In the winter, reindeer dig lichen out from under the snow for food.
Peter Lilja/Getty Images

Reindeer weight fluctuates throughout the year in accordance with the seasons. Once spring comes along in the tundra (around April) and plant life returns, herbivorous reindeer can graze to their hearts' content. As vegetarians, reindeer and caribou get their fill from the grasses and shrubs that grow in the tundra. Males reach their peak weight of around 220 pounds (100 kilograms) in August [source: University of Alaska Fairbanks]. At this point, they go "in rut," which means they begin mating. Mating season is also the cutoff point for females to chow down, since they'll have to endure a winter pregnancy with scarcer rations.

Once winter sets in and snow covers the tundra, the reindeer diet narrows down to one food: lichen. Lichen survives the cold winters because of its unique biological combination of algae and fungus. Thanks to the algae, lichen doesn't require much sunlight to produce chlorophyll; the spongy material of the fungus also holds up well against the harsh temperatures.


Reindeer sniff out lichen beneath the snow and use their curved hooves or antlers to uncover it. During this time, reindeer maintain more sedentary habits to preserve their energy [source: University of Alaska Fairbanks]. The lichen-only regimen is the reverse of the Atkins Diet. The plant contains high amounts of carbohydrates, but no protein. Consequently, the carbs provide the reindeer a source of quick-burning energy that carries them through winter. However, lichen isn't a particularly hearty food, and for that reason, reindeer will eat 4 to 11 pounds (1.8 to 4.9 kilograms) of reindeer moss each day [source: Dieterich and Morton]. That's why reindeer pack on the pounds in the warmer months when there's more to choose from. In fact, these animals gradually lose weight starting in the fall and continuing to March [source: University of Alaska Fairbanks].

Recently, the changing climate has threatened the reindeer and caribou populations. Hotter temperatures have led to more rain and snow melt in the tundra regions. That, in turn, results in sheets of ice forming on top of the snow, once the water refreezes. Reindeer and caribou cannot safely break through the ice with their hooves, leading some to starve to death [source: Mcfarling].

With their seasonally influenced diet, the survival of reindeer depends on the balance of nature. If climate change tips that balance too far, reindeer and caribou could become zoological relics of the past.

For more information about reindeer and caribou, visit the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles



More Great Links





  • "Adaptations to Life in the Arctic." Reindeer Research Program. University of Alaska Fairbanks. (July 25, 2008)
  • Baatar, Tsatsral. "Mongolia's Reindeer People Fight for Survival." Agence France-Presse. Nov. 16, 2004.
  • Dieterich, Robert A. and Morton, Jamie K. "Reindeer Health Aide Manual." University of Alaska Fairbanks and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 1990. (July 28, 2008)
  • Finstad, Greg. "Traditional Uses of Reindeer." University of Alaska Fairbanks. (July 25, 2008)
  • Mcfarling, Usha Lee. "Arctic Ice and Way of Life Melting Away for Eskimos." Los Angeles Times. March 31, 2002. (July 25, 2008)
  • Montaigne, Fen. "Nenets: Surviving on the Siberian Tundra." National Geographic. March 1998.
  • "Reindeer." Chicago Zoological Society. (July 28, 2008)
  • Reindeer/Caribou. "Bering Land Bridge National Reserve. Dec. 22, 1995. (July 25, 2008)
  • "Reindeer Moss." Bering Land Bridge National Reserve. Dec. 22, 1995. (July 25, 2008)
  • "Seasonal Changes: A look at reindeer biology throughout the year." Reindeer Research Program. University of Alaska Fairbanks. (July 25, 2008)