Reindeer and their arctic adaptations

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WHEN winter comes to the northern regions of our planet and the nights arrive, it is time for us to retreat indoors.

In the Arctic, this change is more extreme: the temperature can drop to minus 30°C and sunlight remains absent from this frozen landscape for five months of the year. There are few animals that can survive these harsh conditions, but one has adapted in surprising ways to thrive in extreme cold and prolonged darkness.

At first glance, reindeer may not seem so remarkable. Like most prey, they have eyes positioned on either side of their head to provide a wide field of vision for spotting predators.

Their pupils are horizontal, allowing them to focus their vision at ground level, where food can be found, and along the horizon, where predators might hide. But their eyes are also capable of some scientific tricks.

In 2011, scientists made an amazing discovery that shed new light on reindeer vision. They discovered that reindeer can see ultraviolet (UV) light which helps them find food and escape predators. Reindeer feed on lichen which can be difficult to find in low light conditions, but to reindeer snow appears bright when it reflects UV light and lichen appears dark when it absorbs it. Wolf fur also absorbs UV light, making it easier for reindeer to spot a sneak attack.

It turns out to be a pretty unique ability, as very few animal species are known to use UV vision in this way. UV light is beyond the range of human vision.

We can only see the wavelengths, or colors, of the rainbow, and we call this “visible light”. In fact, UV light carries much more energy than visible light and can damage our eyes. Other mammals such as dogs and cats can see UV light, but it is unknown why.

This may, however, explain your pet’s strange behavior when it seems to see things that are invisible to you. Bees and other pollinators see the world in UV and use this ability to see details about flowers that are invisible to us, but help them locate tasty nectar.

Scientists discovered another revelation about reindeer in 2013. They discovered that the wavelength of light reflected from the back of their eyes changed with the seasons. In summer, when their surroundings are bathed in sunlight, their eyes reflect more of the golden wavelengths of light. In winter, their eyes reflect deeper blue wavelengths. This happens when their eyes become more sensitive to seasonal light levels.

This helps them find food and spot predators in low light and provides protection for their eyes when light levels increase.

Reindeer’s arctic adaptations extend beyond their eyes.

A reindeer’s antlers are perhaps their most majestic feature. Both female and male reindeer have antlers, which is unique among deer species. But only the females retain their antlers during the winter months. This means that all of Santa’s reindeer are female! Antlers have a large surface area which helps reindeer regulate their body temperature. They can also be used to extract food from frozen ground. While other species may use fancy feathers or a dashing hairstyle, reindeer also use their antlers to attract a mate.

In the depths of winter, with freezing arctic temperatures, reindeer have the ultimate combination of winter coats to keep them warm.

They are covered from head to hoof with two layers of hair: a dense undercoat and a loose outer coat in which each hair is hollow. Air is trapped in the hair and provides excellent insulation. In the same way, wearing several layers is better than one thick layer of clothing. The reindeer are so well insulated that when they take a nap, they don’t melt the snow under them.

At the Glasgow Science Centre, as part of Explore! exhibits on floor 1 there is an infrared camera. Infrared wavelengths of light give us information about an object’s temperature.

Come see how well insulated you are this winter and where you could add an extra layer to stay warm.

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