Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick: Any Reindeer Games? (for the Week of Nov. 30, 2008)

November 30, 2008

Q. Dear Twig: Do reindeer really play games?

 

A. Reindeer play but not real games. They start when they're young. They chase each other. They jump up and down. They do things called "mutual threat displays." That means they scowl and shake fists at each other. Except they don't have fists.

No, they don't play games with scores or uniforms or Yukon Cornelius driving them to practice in a minivan. He drives a dog sled anyway.

But reindeer play has a serious purpose. It lets them practice things they'll need to know how to do when they're grown-ups. Like warning the herd of danger. Getting away from danger (such as a wolf). And fighting to not get eaten or win a mate.

How, in fact, does a reindeer warn of danger? It jumps in the air — what scientists call an "excitation leap" — and then runs away. All of the other reindeer see the leap, see the running, and take off running, too. Provided they learned the drill as calves.

Know what that reindeer, the eagle-eyed spotter of danger, does first of all before leaping? A book called Mammalian Social Learning tells us. It "looks directly at the source of disturbance and spreads its hind legs, usually also urinating."

Whoa.

I'm pretty sure Rudolph didn't do that.

Could be why the Bumble caught him.

Behaviorally,

Twig

P.S. Reindeer are mammals. "Urinating" ("YER-ih-nayt-ing") means making water, so to speak.

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Notes:

The part from Mammalian Social Learning comes from the chapter titled "Comparative Social Learning Among Arctic Herbivores: The Caribou, Muskox and Arctic Hare," written by David R. Klein.

Caribou and reindeer belong to the same species, Rangifer tarandus. Sometimes "reindeer" refers to the domestic version and "caribou" to the kind in the wild. But mostly it depends on where the animals live — Alaska or Scandinavia, etc. — as to what people call them. For our purposes here, "reindeer" equals "caribou," and vice versa. The Bumble? It's made up. Fictional. Unknown to science. But at least one observer has reported it bouncing. OK, that's made up, too.

About This:

"Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick" is a weekly feature for children (ages 9+; 4th grade reading level) about science, nature, farming and the environment. Online at http://extension.osu.edu/~news/archive.php?series=science.

Brought to you by your scientific friends at The Ohio State University — specifically, at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) (http://www.oardc.ohio-state.edu) and with Ohio State University Extension (http://extension.osu.edu). OARDC and OSU Extension are the research and outreach arms, respectively, of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Written by Kurt Knebusch of OARDC and OSU Extension. For details, to ask Twig a question, and/or to receive the column free by mail or e-mail, contact Kurt at CommTech, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691; knebusch.1@osu.edu; (330) 263-3776.

Author(s): 
Kurt Knebusch