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Caribou General

Caribou General

Caribou are present in great numbers in Arctic, Subarctic and Boreal regions of North America, and are a central feature of many cultures that have long depended on the animal for survival. The caribou continues to be an important resource for many Indigenous Peoples in Canada, Alaska and Greenland.

Caribou was important to all cultures that had access to it, whether it was a primary or a supplemental food source. Most parts of the caribou were used: flesh, marrow, sinew for thread, hide for clothing, antlers for bows and tools, tallow for lamp light, fat, blood, and the contents of the stomach and intestine [176]. Importance placed on caribou was determined by seasonal fluctuations and regional resource availability, with certain cultures considering the caribou a central component of their existence, while others being less reliant on it [23]. For example, the Gwich’in regarded caribou as an important contributor of energy to the diet, [9, 69, 89, 90]and believed that eating and remaining close to caribou was essential to their health and wellbeing [69].

Many sources describe the importance of caribou to prehistorical cultures. The Dene are thought to have followed caribou herds into the Northwest Territories over 7 000 years ago [6]. Archeological evidence suggests that caribou was important to prehistorical Alaskan cultures. At Aleutian and Choris archeological sites, the majority of animal bones found belonged to two types of caribou [105, 106]. Blades that were most likely used for caribou hunting were also found at Norton sites [105]. Evidence suggests that the Birknik and Old Bering Sea Okvik Neo-Eskimo also hunted caribou [105, 107]. Some prehistorical cultures including Sarqaq and Dorset cultures and Thule established villages along known caribou migratory routes [11, 38, 104, 108].

Often Indigenous Peoples living inland who did not have ready access to marine animals depended more heavily on caribou [94, 95]. In Alaska, people of the Northern Interior depended on caribou for food and raw materials whereas people near Koyuk Inlet, Egavik and Inglutalik River on the coast relied less on the animal [96, 97]. Central Inuit who lived on the tundra relied more heavily on caribou than coastal communities such as Kittegaryumiut (Inuvialuit), Tanaina, Tlingit, Ingalik and Southwestern Yukon residents living in the montane zone [13, 47, 60, 61, 71, 98, 99]. Netsilik Inuit and Copper Inuit depended on caribou only in summer and autumn when they were available and lived from coastal species in winter [95, 100]. Inuit at Eskimo Point hunted caribou to a large extent; however, being a coastal community, they relied on seal when caribou numbers were low [102]. The Han focused on hunting caribou only after the salmon run was over [103]. The Chipewyan Stony Rapids Settlement had access to caribou six months of the year and would turn to fish when there were no more caribou [11]. The Beothuk depended heavily on the caribou and had access to few supplementary resources [48].

Some coastal Inuit communities traveled to caribou hunting grounds by umiak, a traditional boat, if the water was free of ice [112]. Kigirktarugmiut (Inuvialuit) hunted caribou throughout the year, while their neighbors, Kittegaryumiut, only hunted them when they moved inland at the close of the beluga whale season [98]. Like Kittegaryumiut, the Yukon Flats Kutchin only hunted caribou after the main fishing season ended [43].

Hunting season

The most active caribou hunting period was late summer to fall, when weather conditions were favorable (longer days and moderate temperatures), the animal was fatter and the hide was considered to be of best quality [5]. Caribou hunted in autumn tended to be plump, with fatty deposits on the back (between skin and meat), around intestines, eyes and legs [174]. Elsewhere, caribou were reported to be ideal in summer and fall for the high quantity of fat and the high quality of their skins that provided material for clothing of indisputable quality [178-180]. Some Inuit and Chipewyan found that in winter, the caribou was thin and the coat was too thick to be useful and the Chipewyan found the summer coats too infested with insects to be useful [181]. The Mountain (Sahtu) and Tagish lived in summer hunting camps and moved to permanent camps using dried meat stores for winter [28, 121]. Han are also reported to have hunted in late summer [6, 43, 48, 60, 68, 73, 98, 120]. Some cultures, including Gwich’in and Inuit, moved inland during summer to hunt caribou [26, 43, 74, 102]. Inupiat (of Point Barrow), Central Inuit (of Baffin Island, Iglulik, Copper, Netsilik and Mackenzie Delta) and Labrador Inuit are reported to have hunted inland in late summer and autumn [174]. Even though many Inuit (including Netsilik, Baffinland and Copper) had regular access to caribou, they hunted them mostly in late summer [6, 21, 73, 118]. Caribou harvested in summer were reportedly essential for the survival of Netsilik Inuit in winter and no other tasks were allowed to interfere with hunting and meat processing during this time [113]. Nuiqsut Inupiat reportedly killed only females in November because it was thought that males harvested in the rutting season did not taste good [73]. The Montagnais (Innu) hunted from September to October, and killed mainly bulls [119]. Beothuk are also reported to have hunted in late summer [48].

The Tanana, Ahtna, Slavey (Sahtu), Nuiqsut Inupiat, Inuit and Stony Rapids Chipewyan are reported to have participated in two major caribou hunts each year: in spring and fall [11, 15, 22, 26, 64, 73, 125]. The Peel River Kutchin reportedly only killed males in spring when cows were calving [43]. Alaskan Yupik and Micmac (Mi'kmaq) are also reported to have hunted in spring [123, 124].

Some cultures avoided hunting caribou in winter, often because of poor weather and shorter days [73]; however, others engaged in the winter hunt. The Koyukon moved to semi-permanent caribou hunting camps in winter [68]. Han, Kolchan, Caribou Inuit, Montagnais and Eastern Abenaki reportedly had a seasonal dependence on caribou in winter [44, 120, 127-130]. The “Caribou Eaters” (Dene) and Hatchet Lake Chipewyan often hunted caribou in winter when there were herds from ten to one hundred animals [131]. Although caribou could be hunted any time of the year, the Mistissini Cree pursued them exhaustively in fall and winter on hunting trips that lasted several days; in fact, they moved to semi-permanent winter caribou hunting camps [122].

Hunting techniques

Although hunting techniques differed from culture to culture, three major strategies were used: 1) communal driving into enclosures and bodies of water, 2) individual or small group stalking and 3) trapping [60, 132]. Large-scale hunting involved driving the animals into the open where they could easily be killed [53, 75, 133]. Cultures including Tanaina, Yukon Indigenous Peoples, and Shuswap used dogs that chased down or herded the caribou [13, 61, 134]. Small-scale hunting involved getting close to the animal through stalking or luring so that it could be killed [6]. Hunting equipment used included bows and arrows, spears, lances, daggers and traps such as snares [33, 49, 64]. In general, caribou were shared among the group of hunters, however at least one source reports the hide always went to the hunter who made the kill [56].

Caribou were hunted by Inuit women and men using bows and arrows, spears and guns when they became accessible [140]. Caribou were hunted by Inuit from kayaks with spears [24, 178, 180]. Stone piles were built to frighten the animals to cross the rivers at specific locations where men waited in canoes to ambush the animals. Fences with traps and surrounds were also used for communal hunting in open spaces [178]. Snow pits baited with urine were arranged to catch caribou in the winter. Caribou were killed easily, which made hunting trips to grazing grounds worthwhile.

Many cultures such as the Shuswap, Kootenai, Tahltan, Inuit and Cree used the bow and arrow [6, 58, 61, 75, 108, 113, 122, 131, 138]. The Tahltan made arrows with detachable arrowheads that remained lodged in the target creating more serious wounds which resulted in swifter kills [75]. Netsilik Inuit used the bow and arrow a great deal to slow the animal down so that the hunter could get close enough to make the final kill with a spear or knife. The bows were made from antlers and horns [6, 113]. The Mistissini made bows with a piece of wood and twisted caribou hide for the string; arrows were made from birchwood with bone or metal tips [108]. The Kootenai, Plains Ojibwa (Chippewa), Chipewyan and Mistissini Cree used bows and arrows almost exclusively until guns became available [58, 122, 131, 138], which soon became the principal weapon used to kill caribou [85]. In fact, most hunting strategies became obsolete after rifles were introduced [9, 60, 75, 122, 136]. Some cultures, however, preferred to continue using arrows and save ammunition for more difficult targets [108, 115].

Cultures including Slave (Sahtu), Dogrib and Dorset Inuit, mainly used lances, spears and harpoons [64, 135]. The Vanta Kutchin made short caribou antler spears, so they did not break or bend and could be pulled out easily. Spears were also made from caribou long bones; however they tended to break and split more often [34].

Traps were often used in summer, but could be used any time of the year. The Mountain People (Dene) used brush fence traps while most other cultures used snares made of babiche (twisted rawhide) that were tied at the four corners to poles or trees [28, 34, 37]. Snares were set in the forest areas between trees, usually when herds were not migrating [43, 108].

The Kalispel, Peel River Kutchin, Inuit (including Iglulik) and Micmac often stalked caribou when the concentration of animals was low or when herds broke up into smaller groups [43, 60, 132, 137, 148, 149]. Stalking was practiced in small groups or alone mostly in winter; however, the Thule are reported to have trapped and snared caribou throughout the year [122, 150]. These methods were sometimes more efficient than communal hunts because the meat was divided into larger portions [132]. Stalking in winter could take place without much effort; the Sekani, Tahltan, Loucheux, Netsilik Inuit, Northern Ojibwa and Mistissini Cree swiftly killed caribou in deep snow [6, 37, 53, 75, 76, 122, 151]. Netsilik Inuit also dug pits placing sharp objects at the bottom that injured caribou when they fell in. An occasionally dangerous winter hunting method was to lure caribou onto thin ice where they would fall through and drown [6]. Hunters tracked the animals on snowshoes with sleds, making travel quite swift and often constructed makeshift traps in the snow [131, 137]. In cold weather snares were set up in a line to trap any caribou passing by [34]. Inuit stalked caribou in summer when herds were dispersed [26]. To track caribou, Inuit searched for arctic fox urine in the snow, which could indicate buried caribou meat. They also followed fox tracks to freshly killed meat [152].

Some cultures used other unique techniques to attract caribou. During mating season, caribou were lured with a horn or by rubbing a shoulder bone against a tree. A decoy, such as a head, was often used [33, 142]. The Crow River Kutchin stuffed a caribou head with moss, mounted it on a stick, and walked with it in front of their faces to attract caribou in winter [43]. Similarly, Netsilik Inuit, Loucheux and Chipewyan attracted caribou by imitating them, holding up antlers and grunting during rutting season [6, 53, 131].

Change in hunting practices

Many caribou populations are reported to have been close to extinction at the turn of the twentieth century [182]. The migrations used to be regular, and the Inuit could depend on the caribou for a reliable resource until the early twentieth century when the numbers began to decline and then in 1916 they disappeared entirely. The reduction of numbers can be attributed to over hunting with the used of repeating revolvers though government hunting regulations saw the return of caribou in the 1940s [24, 179]. The introduction of guns was reported to have resulted in an expanded hunting season for some Inuit, from what was once a seasonal activity to what became a year-round activity [183]. Caribou remained numerous in the Porcupine River region of North Yukon throughout the twentieth century when other caribou herds declined drastically in numbers [89, 110, 184-188].

With declining animal populations and increasing permanent housing/settlements the introduction of European hunting equipment and government hunting regulations brought significant changes in caribou hunting patterns. Cultures such as Dene and Inuit continued to consider caribou an important animal and hunting continued to be important for nutrition as well as maintaining a certain level of social ties [6]. However, caribou hunting was no longer a communal activity [6, 16]and collective hunting methods shifted to individual and family trapping [6, 14]. The method of driving herds was replaced with the use of motorboats, rifles and chartered flights. Snowmobiles replaced dogsleds. Although provincial hunting regulations varied greatly, Indigenous Peoples were generally free to hunt caribou for their own purposes and sell a small amount of meat [11]. Nevertheless, for the Nuiqsut Inupiat, Caribou Inuit, Chipewyan and others, regulations meant a dramatic change in their way of life [16, 73]. Many cultures were obligated to move to the coast to secure reliable sources of food. Even among the Hare (Sahtu) who were still capable of acquiring enough caribou to supply their annual needs, their traditions became more individualistic or family centered instead of community oriented [16, 36, 56, 74].

With the establishment of permanent settlements and the decline of caribou, cultures including Inuit, Dogrib, Cree and Montagnais reportedly began to limit hunting to winter, supplementing the diet with store-bought foods, despite the high regard for caribou meat [7, 14, 76-78, 85]. In recent times, Inuit living in the Cumberland Sound subsisted mainly on marine mammals. Before the introduction of snowmobiles and permanent housing, they moved inland each summer to secure enough caribou skins for winter clothing. Some spent most of the year inland living on caribou as well. When repeating rifles became available, caribou were an important addition to their diet until the 1930s when caribou seemed to have disappeared from the region. By the end of the twentieth century local caribou population recovered slightly [189].

Some modern hunters were reluctant to hunt caribou because of the time and difficulty required; however those that hunted were extremely proud men [56]. Traditionally, the Naskapi (Innu) relied on caribou for sustenance; however, they shifted to using more marine food sources [30, 82].

The wide availability of guns is thought to have contributed to the decline in numbers of several herds [190]. With the advent of guns, cultures such as the Tahltan were able to acquire more caribou, contributing to their economy [75]; however, the availability of guns was ultimately thought to facilitate decline in caribou numbers in many regions through greater ease of killing and consequent waste because the tradition of using all parts of the animal was not adhered to [11, 16, 41, 44]. The Naskapi of Labrador were forced to move to the coast to obtain other resources after caribou numbers declined in 1916; however their focus remained on caribou hunting for half the year [191]. Cultures that did not have access to other resources were forced to adapt or to move. When cultures who depended on migratory caribou did not succeed in obtaining enough caribou, they broke-up into small family groups to hunt smaller animals in the forest for sustenance [162, 192]; the cultures that did not have access to forests were more susceptible to periods of starvation [6, 13, 19, 151].

Hunting regulations brought a revival of caribou populations in the 1960s and 1970s; however, there have been subsequent declines [16]. Declining caribou numbers are also attributed to changes in the natural habitat as a result of pipelines, drilling, air traffic and building construction [11].

Due to the decrease in caribou, many cultures adapted, learning to depend less on this resource [56]. The Cree, who relied on caribou meat, were severely impactedand this decreased availability coincided with a Cree health epidemic [80, 81, 83]. Although the caribou made a recovery in the mid 1900s, the Cree had become fairly dependent on store-bought foods, sedentary lifestyles, and wage paying jobs, which left little time for caribou hunting. New hunting technologies and transport made hunting more productive in the 1970s; however, many young people were had become less accustomed to caribou meat and preferred store-bought foods. By 1976 caribou meat comprised only 5 percent of the total country food consumed by the Cree [80, 81].


Given the size of the animal, caribou were a challenge to carry back to camp; this was particularly the case when several were killed at once or a hunter was alone. Sometimes the hunter would eat some meat immediately, carry the best parts home and send his wife or other community members to collect the rest [53, 120]. Although women were normally responsible for cooking and preserving meat, both men and women stripped and partitioned the caribou, depending on where the animal had been killed. The carcasses were almost always skinned and cut into smaller pieces immediately so that they could be packaged and carried back to camp or cached. To avoid the problem of hauling a large animal back to camp, the Vunta Kutchin at Old Crow often waited until all animals were upstream from the village, so that transportation of the killed animals would be easy by boat [20]. Alternatively, Vunta Kutchin and Chandalar Kutchin would set up meat camps at the site of a kill where the hunting party would process the skins, dry, and package the meat. However, these camps gradually disappeared with the increase of permanent settlements [9, 20].

Several storage methods were used to prevent animals from attacking caches of fresh or dried meat. The Carrier stored dried meat in wooden boxes sealed with bear fat [126]. The Han stored the meat in a tree [120]. Fresh meat was stored in semi-frozen ground by Chandalar Kutchin if the weather was cold [9]. Other methods were also used; pits were dug and covered with rocks, open platforms several meters off the ground were built, log boxes were used, and when axes were available mini log houses on stilts were made to store dried meat [9, 15, 20]. Inuit submerged carcasses in shallow ponds when the weather was sufficiently cold to form a thin layer of ice [1]. The Beothuk stored excess dried and smoked meat in storehouses, pits and bark packets [139].

Caribou flesh and parts were consumed in a variety of ways: boiled, roasted, raw, frozen or dried [15, 20, 39, 43, 85, 95, 123, 139], with boiling and roasting the most common. To boil the flesh, hot stones were often added to a water-filled wood vessel, caribou stomach, or pit lined with caribou skin [15, 60]. Netsilik Inuit and Chukchi frequently ate raw meat and sometimes dipped it into oil before consumption [6, 155]. Inuit ate mostly raw meat [175], preferring it slightly fermented, but occasionally roasted or boiled it as well [24]. Communities would sometimes have a feast on the raw meat of a freshly killed caribou [175]. The animal would be brought to the centre of the lodge and guests would sit on the floor around it. The host would skin the carcass and the hide would be spread on the floor to act as a dish or reservoir for the blood. The guests, all armed with knives, would help themselves to the meat until only skin and skeleton remained. The blood, a delicacy, was scooped with horn spoons or skin cups and eaten with the flesh [175].

In contrast, other cultures such as Peel River Kutchin and Cree never ate raw caribou meat [43, 154].

Preserving caribou when it was abundant was important for survival during leaner times. Since caribou ate mostly lichens, the meat was very lean [193]. Drying was a common method as well-dried meat could be stored for long periods of time. [85]. Drying and storing meat was an extensive lengthy process, which had to be completed before the group migrated to another location or changed camps. Métis, Tanana, Central Inuit and Beothuk reportedly spent a great deal of time processing meat [96, 99, 139, 144, 158]. The Carrier, Chandalar Kutchin, Peel River Kutchin, Yukon Flats Kutchin, Stony Rapids Chipewyan and Beothuk reportedly dried all excess meat in spring or froze it during colder seasons [9, 11, 15, 27, 48, 56, 75, 130, 139]. The Kutchin prepared the flesh by removing the head, slicing the animal along the abdomen and peeling off the skin, which was used as a blanket for butchering the meat in addition to retaining the blood. Layers of muscle were sliced off in thin strips and hung to dry. The stomach, intestines and heart were emptied, turned inside out, and dried. The long bones were retained for their fat, while the head, legs and liver were consumed without delay. The tenderloin was considered the best piece of meat to be dried [9, 20, 43].

Drying the meat often involved smoking. The Dogrib and Vanta Kutchin built racks to dry meat for several days over a smoky fire of rotten spruce wood. The strips were laid over the racks and turned often. This was usually done outside but could be done indoors over a stove [20, 85]. The Upper Tanana did not intentionally smoke meat, but built smoky fires from rotten wood near drying meat to stop insects from getting to it [15]. The Chipewyan sliced the meat off the bones then hung it to dry in log cabins and then smoked it in tents [131]. The Micmac smoked slabs of meat for 4-5 days over a smoky fire of rotten wood, sometimes subsequently drying the meat in the sun. Excess humidity was removed by walking over pieces of meat sandwiched between canvas sheets [119, 157]. The Mistissini had communal drying houses where everyone hung meat to dry, pounding it at regular intervals for about six days to remove excess humidity [122].

Dried meat was often made into pemmican by pounding and mixing with fat, tallow/marrow and sometimes dried berries [20, 43, 69, 85, 111, 156]. The Kutchin served this at potlatches [43, 56]. The Cree used dried fish and caribou fat to make pemmican [30]. Dried meat was also soaked and boiled to make a stew by the Vunta Kutchin and Dogrib [20, 85]. Many communities ate most caribou meat in the form of pemmican; however when government freezers and modern conveniences were available pemmican use became less common [56]. The Penobscot who traditionally ate pemmican, began eating caribou roasted, stewed and pan fried [45].

Almost all parts of the caribou were consumed including flesh, marrow, blood, nose, lungs, brain, head, ribs, cartilage, kidney, eyes, pancreas, antler velvet, embryo, stomach, and stomach contents [6, 15, 20, 25, 27, 43, 69, 91-93, 156, 159, 160]. Caribou head, fermented contents of the stomach, and droppings made into a soup were considered delicacies [24]. Several groups, of which Copper Inuit are one, ate caribou droppings. Netsilik and Iglulik Inuit ate droppings with blubber [174]. Caribou bot fly larvae, found in the animals’ hides in spring, were eaten by Caribou, Netsilik and Iglulik Inuit as well as Chipewyan [174]. The tongue was especially considered a delicacy by Hare, Chipewyan and Kutchin, among others [6, 11, 53, 56, 60, 130, 151, 162]. The Kutchin usually boiled or roasted the tongue, but it could also be dried [43]. Ribs were also highly favored by Kutchin and were typically roasted; they also quartered the head and boiled it with the kidneys or roasted it [20, 43]. The nose, tongue, kidneys and eyes were considered delicacies by the Yukon Flats Kutchin [43]. Elderly Kutchin and Upper Tanana enjoyed eating caribou fetus which was generally boiled [15, 43]. The head was considered the best part of the caribou by the Upper Tanana; however women were prohibited from eating it unless they were elderly [15]. Velvet-covered antlers were normally roasted by Yukon cultures until the velvet was charred and could be peeled off, revealing the crunchy skin inside which was said to resemble bacon [15, 34, 156]. Hare and Inuit reportedly boiled caribou head for several hours and served it at feasts. The Hare considered the tongue, brains, mammary glands of new mothers and fetuses to be delicacies; the Chipewyan preferred the back fat, muzzle, tongue and warble fly larvae living under the skin [33, 56]. Inuit fermented the liver in a caribou stomach under hot sun for several days [24, 43]. The ends of the bones were reportedly also eaten. [95, 159]. The Mistissini ate all parts of the caribou except the eyes and the contents of the intestines; their favorite parts were the fetus and the stomach [122]. The Micmac boiled all the internal organs before eating them and roasted caribou head on a spit [119].

Many consumed stomach and intestines. The Peel River Kutchin, Chipewyan, Netsilik Inuit and Mistissini reportedly ate the fermented stomach contents, which provided vegetable matter often absent in the diet [6, 33, 43, 95, 122]. The Upper Tanana emptied the stomach, sliced it into thin strips, and dried the strips with the half digested food still attached. These dried stomach strips were used to flavor boiled meat. They also stuffed the stomach with dried meat and steamed it [15]. The Hare cooked the intestines and its contents: the contents were fed to the dogs and the intestines were washed and consumed by the community [56]. Boiled or stuffed caribou intestines were popular with the Bush Cree and Peel River Kutchin [24, 43]. The Mistissini stuffed intestines with fresh meat and other ingredients before they cooked it [122]. The Micmac turned the intestines inside out and dried them before eating [157].

The marrow and fat were commonly consumed. Inuit and Cree ate marrow from caribou bones, which were saved, cracked and boiled to make tallow [154, 161]. The oil remaining after the bones were boiled was collected and solidified into a lard cake that could be packaged and stored for later use [15, 20, 69, 111, 123, 131]. The Dogrib used fresh marrow as a type of butter or they rendered and conserved it. They preserved the tallow by cutting it into cubes and skewering the cubes on sticks, allowing them to dry and harden. Dried tallow was powdered and boiled with water [85, 159]. The Hudson Strait Inuit are reported to have held rendered caribou fat in high regard [174]. The Upper Tanana conserved fat in stomachs while the Carrier stored it in intestines, which they used as travel rations when on hunting trips [15, 126]. Iglulik Inuit rendered the fat and kept the bladder to be consumed at special feasts in winter [174].The Micmac ate the marrow immediately after a kill: they cracked the bones, roasted them over a fire and then sucked out the marrow [119].

Broth and soup were common preparations. Caribou broth was made from boiling bones after the tallow was removed [111, 122, 156]. When food sources were low, even the dried tendons and hooves were used to make broth [9, 69]. The Old Crow Kutchin ate the raw leg sinews [20]. Caribou droppings were used to make soup by the Chipewyan who considered this dish a delicacy [130, 163]. Caribou blood was made into soup or drunk fresh [9, 20, 56, 156]. The Mistissini and Yukon cultures collected caribou blood by pouring it into caribou stomachs, which were hung, or by pouring it into pans to dry [122, 156]. Caribou Inuit ate blood soup with meat added and they also consumed the eyes [174]. Copper Inuit ate warm blood soup in summer and fed the kidneys to their dogs [174]. Labrador and Netsilik Inuit mixed caribou blood with caribou stomach contents to make a soup [174]. The Cree held feasts and rituals, which involved drinking a caribou blood mixture made with the contents of the caribou stomach, or drinking the broth from the boiled cracked long bones. Many people ate and shared these drinks [76].

More recently, First Nations incorporated caribou meat into modern foods, often replacing beef in recipes [159]. Caribou meat was sometimes boiled with salt, vegetables, and rice or macaroni. Caribou blood was boiled with fat and mixed with flour [155]. By the 1960s the Old Crow Kutchin reportedly no longer ate the fermented contents of the caribou stomach [20]. As herbivores, caribou have relatively low concentrations of contaminants compared to marine mammals [47]. For example, although caribou eat lichens that absorb cesium-137 deposited from radioactive fallout and pollution from radioactivity has dramatically increased in some parts of the North, the levels contained in caribou meat are not high enough to pose a health hazard [159].

Uses other than food

Caribou also provided shelter, bedding, tools and clothing [33, 85, 116]. Caribou hides were used by community members, given as gifts or used as barter with other cultures [20, 98]. To prepare the hide by drying and smoking, women first scraped off flesh, blood and hair [56, 119, 141]. A brain or marrow mixture was sometimes used to tan the hides; in later years, the traditional mixture was often replaced with a modern soap mix [56, 85, 122]. The hides made excellent bedding and clothing (trousers, shirts, mittens, summer garments and spring coats, which could be altered by adding hoods for winter) [3, 20, 43, 53, 97, 119]. Coastal Inuit went on short hunting trips at the end of summer to secure enough hides to make clothing and blankets for winter [100]. For Netsilik Inuit, approximately 30 hides were required to supply all the clothing, outerwear, and bedding requirements for one family for a single year [6, 113]. By the 1960s, synthetic clothing and materials were easily accessible; however Dogrib considered caribou babiche (lacing of rawhide), ankle wraps, moccasins, and leg warmers far superior to any store-bought products [85]. Around the same time many people traditionally dependent on caribou hides for clothing, blankets, and bags bought mostly pre-made articles from the Hudson Bay Company [20, 153]. The Cree gave caribou hide to teething babies to chew [30]. Tents coverings and wigwams were made from sewing numerous hides together [19, 43, 60, 111, 161]. Leg skin was used to make sacs, and arrow cases [63, 75]. Rawhide was used for dog-whips, dog collars, throngs, and strings for snowshoes [20, 49, 60, 122, 131, 153]. Micmac made a sleeping bag known as knocksun from the thick hide [119]. Babiche was used for numerous purposes, such as strings, nets, cord, and snares [20, 141]. Stretched hides were used as sleeping mats [8].

Antlers, sinews, horns and bones were used to make arrowheads, wood-working tools, root-diggers, spear heads, bear clubs, scrapers and various useful objects [3, 20, 61, 85, 142, 161]. Long bones from the legs could be used as spoons to stir large pots [123]. Sinews were used as string for bows or sewing thread to put together garments, mittens and moccasins [8, 56, 75, 119, 122]. Gun accessories were made from caribou products as well: powder flasks from intestines, and powder chargers from hollowed bone [75]. Some communities used caribou fat to light lamps [26, 100].

Caribou grease mixed with ash was used to relieve dried skin, and digestive remedies were also made from caribou sources [69]. Men used the blood as a tonic to prevent illness and enhance male potency [20].

Caribou meat was sometimes fed to dogs, used as bait to catch fish in the summer, or the livers were used by children to bait snares to catch birds [113, 136].

The stomach was important for many groups; it could be used as a container, a cooking pot and a fermentation vessel [15]. In addition, Inuit found the caribou stomach very useful for marinating and fermenting herbs and grass [161]. The Cree often used the stomach to store rendered caribou fat [111].

Caribou meat and other parts of the animal were used in trading. Dried meat was an important trading commodity and provided caribou to coastal people who had little access to caribou hunting grounds [75]. The Bella Coola (Nuxalk) traveled inland to get dried caribou meat from the Chilcotin [123, 169]. The Lillooet traded with the Sechelt, Squamish and Tl’úhus for caribou goods [170]. The Interior Northern Alaskan peoples traded caribou goods for coastal products with peoples that lived on the shore [96]. The Peel River Kutchin used baby caribou skin to strain fish oil, which they packaged and traded [43].

Beliefs and taboos

Many taboos and ceremonies are reported to be associated with caribou [11]. Several rituals and hunting chants were practiced prior to a major pursuit [85, 194]. Some cultures believed that caribou and sea mammals were natural enemies and therefore if they were to connect them in death (by preparing, cooking or eating them together) then their spirits would not allow the animals to be caught again [6, 173]. Caribou meat could not even be cooked on a fire made with driftwood since if came from the sea [6]. The belief stems from a myth that describes how a woman created both creatures, originally giving the caribou tusks and the walrus antlers. When the caribou killed a man with his tusks, the women removed them and gave them to the walrus in exchange for the antlers. According to the myth, the caribou and walrus have kept their distance since that time. Once the walrus-hunting season started, all things related to the caribou were buried and were forbidden from being brought onto the sea ice. Likewise, during the caribou hunting season, all things related to the walrus were buried and could not be brought inland where the caribou dwelled [173]. Caribou bones were not permitted to be thrown into rivers [56]. Netsilik Inuit and Ethen-Eldeli (Dene) had similar beliefs [6].

Young Carrier males could not eat leg sinews or they would risk losing their speed and power [126]. Hare hunters believed that they were in competition with wolves for the caribou [56]. Kaska and Dogrib hunters believed that clubbing a caribou to death or killing it with wood would bring about the end of the hunter’s career [85, 142]. Dogrib girls were warned not to eat caribou head or all their hair would go white. Children were not allowed to eat fetuses or udders [85]. Kutchin men carved caribou body parts and assembled to focus on these parts with the hopes of attracting a herd [43]. When conventional tracking methods failed, the men practiced scapulimancy to locate herds of caribou. This technique involved cracking a caribou shoulder bone over a fire that had been decorated with pictures of animals and trails through the forest. The line of the crack indicated the direction; a complete crack was an omen for success, and a medium crack was an indicator of mediocre success [30, 43]. Strict taboos prohibited women from taking part in these ceremonies [43]. Sunbeams were indications used to locate a herd, which were only revealed to worthy hunters [30]. Hunters wore good luck amulets containing caribou teeth, while the women and children carried wolf hair to bring them luck as “beaters” [6]. The people of Fort Resolution believed that reaming of caribou bones was common when food was scarce [171].

Even if extreme joy was felt by a hunter who made a good kill or by the wife who unpacked the meat, the Cree were not allowed to openly show emotions [76]. Mistissini Cree mounted caribou antlers on a structure facing east near where the animal was killed and hung the shoulder blade from a tree [122]. The Mistissini and Montagnais used hunting charms to bring good luck. A nimában was commonly made for a young man who went on his first caribou hunt with his father. This was a packsack with a strap that had colored embroidered ribbons symbolizing small and large game with the embroidery showing a hunter shooting a caribou on snow shoes [172]. There was a taboo for Micmac against killing pregnant female caribou, presumably to preserve the species [123]. 

Migratory Caribou

Migratory caribou, also commonly called barren-ground or tundra caribou, were highly valued by cultures living in Arctic and Subarctic areas including the Athapaskan, Dogrib, Hare (Sahtu), Loucheux (Gwich’in), Kutchin (Gwich’in), Inuit (including Nuvorugmiut, Caribou), Inupiat, Inuvialuit, Naskapi (Innu), Chipewyan and Algonquian. Migratory caribou were sometimes referred to as reindeer and also called deer at times [178, 180, 194, 195].

Typically, migratory caribou spent winters at the edge of forests and summers on the tundra, and could be separated into herds based on the location of their traditional calving grounds. Many cultures were heavily dependent on and strongly associated with a particular migratory caribou herd. For example the Kaminuriak and Beverly herds were followed by some Inuit cultures, and the Bathurst was followed by the Yellowknives (Dene) [196, 197]. Migratory herds with calving grounds in northern Alaska were hunted by the North Alaska Coast Inupiat when they migrated to the tundra in spring and fall. Point Barrow Inupiat went on hunting trips to find migratory caribou on wintering grounds in February and March [192, 194]. Three herds of migratory caribou were known by the Black River Kutchin (Gwich’in), but only two of them were pursued [179]. These herds spent summer on the highlands, moved southwest in fall, spent winter in the south woods and moved to the north plateau in spring. The porcupine caribou herd has long been held in high regard by the Gwich’in, as an important contributor of energy to the diet, with all edible parts of the animal being used and remains given to dogs [9, 69, 89, 90]. The Gwich’in are reported to believe that eating and remaining close to the caribou was essential to their health and wellbeing [69].

Many cultures traveled to hunt for migratory caribou. Indeed, caribou-dependent peoples tended to be nomadic in nature, covering vast territories following caribou migration paths [30]. The Yukon Flats Kutchin (Gwich’in) and Carrier organized special trips to hunt caribou [43, 109], and cultures living in proximity to Great Slave and Great Bear Lakes traveled into the barren lands to hunt caribou [94]. The Anahem Chilcotin moved north in fall, and the Cree traveled inland in winter to hunt caribou [61, 111]. For Algonquian, caribou herds moved north to the tundra in spring and south to the tree line in winter [60, 111]. Both the Dogrib and Yellowknives (Dene) were reported to be nomadic and followed the movements of caribou; however the Yellowknives pursued the herds into the tundra, whereas the Dogrib waited their return in winter [53, 110].The Slavey (Sahtu) took trips each year to find migratory caribou, which were located outside their territory [4, 6, 19, 85, 102, 171, 180, 190, 191, 198-201]. The Western Woods Cree had access to migratory caribou only when the herds were so large that they entered their wooded territory [6, 195, 202, 203]. The Ethen-eldeli living west of the Hudson Bay, were known as the Caribou Eaters due to the central position that migratory caribou played in their culture and their heavy dependence on them [6, 26, 151]. Netsilik Inuit migrated between ice and tundra as did the caribou herds [6]. The Tutchone and Ungava Bay Inuit migrated often, following the caribou, which they depended upon heavily [29]. North Alaskan cultures that lived inland followed caribou most of the year [72, 96]. The caribou in Northern Ontario and Quebec migrated further north in spring to feed and Inuit moved south at this time to meet them. Alternately, the Chipewyan, Dene and Netsilik Inuit were nomadic and pursued the same herd, travelling every season to meet the herds each time they migrated [1, 6].

Although large herds generally moved north in spring and south in fall, some herds had different or highly variable migration routes. Many herds passed through the same forests, crossed the same rivers, and went to the same plains during their migratory routes year after year [20]. Inuit predicted the movements of migratory caribou and waited for the herds to pass through their territory in great numbers in order to acquire a large cache of meat [183]. However, any change to the environment could have had important implications for their migration paths and herd numbers [114]. These unpredictable alterations in migration routes presented a challenge for caribou-dependent cultures [11, 48]. Many Inuit relied on finding migrating herds of caribou to sustain them through winter [115]. Inland Inuit who depended heavily on migrating herds networked with other cultures; trading food and fat ensured survival through winter when caribou herds failed to appear [116]. For Netsilik Inuit, caribou migrations were semi-predictable; generally, herds moved north in winter and south in spring, with each herd following a particular route [113]. Copper, Netsilik and Iglulik Inuit had access to both sedentary Peary caribou and migratory caribou herds in the regions where they resided [117].

Hunting season

Movements and the seasonal availability of migratory caribou was an important constraint on the seasonal timing of caribou hunting [171, 181, 195]. Lower Tanana of Minto, Alaska hunted migratory caribou in winter forests [171, 196, 204]. Inupiat of Northwestern Alaska hunted the migratory caribou on snowshoes in late winter [201]. Inuit traveled inland each summer to drive caribou herds, which they intercepted at migration routes while crossing rivers and lakes [181]. The Koyukon, Nuvorugmiut (Inuvialuit) and Avvagmiut (Inuvialuit), Dogrib, Yellowknives and Chipewyan met caribou herds during mass migrations in late summer to early fall [6, 43, 48, 60, 68, 73, 98, 120]. Northern Alaska cultures joined together in the interior to communally hunt migrating caribou herds during spring and fall [72, 96]. Several herds of migratory Alaska-Yukon caribou traveled unpredictable migration routes, making hunting a challenge [20]. In the early 20th century, the animals were abundant at Porcupine River and migrated west or south at the end of summer in big groups, at which time they could be hunted by large groups of hunters. When the herd moved again at the end of October, it was also pursued actively. At other times of the year the animals were scattered, and men could stalk the smaller groups [20].

Hunting techniques

Hunting strategies were determined by time of year. Vanta Kutchin, Loucheux (Gwich’in), Inuit (including Iglulik and Netsilik) and Beothuk hunters used spears to kill caribou from canoes while they crossed rivers and lakes in large herds on their migratory route [6, 22, 26, 34, 48, 53, 60, 94, 113, 136, 137]. In summer when herds were large, communal drives forced the herds towards impoundments or water; in winter when the herds were spread out, the animals were stalked [13, 85]. Large scale hunting generally took place at the end of summer or in fall [85]. Hunting trips normally involved groups of 1-6 men by canoe or, in later times, even chartered planes, and varied from a few days to a few months. Migratory caribou were hunted by the Tanaina in Alaska on purposeful hunting trips in fall. They were captured using three basic techniques: driving them into lakes or rivers where men awaited in canoes with spears; the use of dogs to drive them towards armed men; and driving them into pre-constructed fences and enclosures containing snares [205].

Communal driving was an essential method for many cultures. Cultures including Peel River Kutchin, Chandalar Kutchin, Loucheux, Kaska, Tanana, Han, Ingalik, Inuit, Mi’kmaq and Mistissini Cree reportedly formed large groups of 20-50 men to herd caribou into pre-constructed enclosures that were set with snares [9, 13, 22, 43, 49, 53, 60, 94, 120, 122, 132, 142-145]. Communal driving took place when the herds migrated in large numbers in spring and fall at which time the hunting party could obtain several hundred caribou at once, which was sufficient to supply all the food and raw material needs for the season [9, 22, 53, 144]. However, this type of hunting was often inefficient when the group was very large since the portion of meat allotted to each member was smaller, especially when driving the herd into the enclosure was unsuccessful [132]. In earlier times, it was said that enclosures consisted of men and women who encircled a herd and slowly closed in on them with arrows and spears [20, 120]. Caribou enclosures and fences with funnel-like entrances were permanent or semi-permanent circular structures, sometimes several kilometers in diameter, framed with large wooden poles that had snares filling the gaps [9, 43, 142, 146]. Permanent enclosures were sturdy and long lasting, while semi-permanent structures were built hastily when a herd was randomly spotted far from the usual camp [43]. The permanent enclosure was time-consuming to build and maintain; the Loucheux custom was to pass it on to their children [53]. The Koyukon and Chipewyan built communal caribou fences with the directions of a fence manager [33, 68]. Single straight fences were also constructed, sometimes with the use of natural forming barriers in clearings or along rivers [75]. The poles were disguised to look like men, the fence was covered with moss and twigs to hide it, and the snares were rubbed with grass and dirt to conceal human odors [43, 142]. Often, the caribou became entangled and choked to death in the snares. Bows, arrows and spears were used to kill caribou that escaped or broke free [142]. Rock-piles were assembled to divert caribou and men were also used when fences were not constructed [96, 147]. Inuit made piles of stones that resembled hunters to frighten caribou and drive them into water where men in kayaks speared them easily [183]. The Kalispel drove caribou with fire and the Kaska drove caribou into ravines or off cliffs [142, 148]. 

The communal driving method also took advantage of river crossings. The most important hunting event for the community of Old Crow was when caribou arrived at Porcupine River, at which time men hastened to gather their gear and form bands with other hunters. A band consisted of two or three men with a motorboat or canoe and several rifles. The bands spread out along the river and waited until the animals moved into the water, when they made an effort to kill them all. When ammunition ran out, axes were used. The carcasses were attached to the boats and pulled back to town [20]. The hunt was often a community event, where women and children also participated, playing the role of wolves, making noise and chasing the caribou towards the river [6, 21, 136, 140]. Women and children who drove animals into desired locations were known as “beaters” [137]. Netsilik and Copper Inuit hunters stacked up boulders resembling men to scare the caribou into crossing rivers at specific locations where hunters waited in canoes to ambush the unsuspecting animals with spears [6, 21]. The Beothuk are thought to have built long deer fences along the Exploits River, into which they drove the herd so that they would cross the river at predictable locations [139].


Migratory caribou hunting often yielded excess meat that was dried and stored in specially built boxes, platforms or pits [6, 11, 181]. Meat was eaten boiled or roasted; extra meat was dried in summer and frozen in winter. Pemmican was a common dish brought on long trips. Frozen meat was generally eaten raw by Inuit, and dried meat was eaten soaked and boiled [198]. Although Inuit were known for eating meat raw, Hawkes [198], stated that only small portions were eaten in this manner. Back fat was eaten fresh after a kill and the blood was kept to make soup [194]. Fetuses and the contents of the rectum were delicacies [206]. Inupiat hunters of Northwestern Alaska would return home to a big feast of caribou that would be boiled in a pot and given to every visitor [201].

Uses other than food

In addition to a major food source, the migratory caribou was essential to make clothing, tents, sinew thread, bone needles, tools and daily objects [6, 11]. Inupiat of Alaska used the antlers to make weapons and other tools; back and leg tendons were used to make thread for clothes, which were made out of the hide [201]. One source indicated that between 20 and 36 migratory caribou were required to cover the necessities for one family each year [6].

Beliefs and taboos

It was believed that the killing of large numbers of animals from migratory herds caused some of them to change their migratory routes [176]. The Ethen-eldeli believed in animism; each animal had a soul that continued to live on even after they died. For this reason there were strict practices and customs that were followed in order not to offend the dead animals’ spirits [6]. Similarly, the Dogrib and Hare cultures also had comparable dependence and beliefs. Some cultures believed that migratory caribou were under the control of a master and would not be killed unless their master released them and gave hunters permission to use his animals [11, 120, 162, 198].

The Vanta Kutchin viewed the caribou migration as a very important event and would often not travel to their winter hunting grounds until the herds passed. It was a great honor to see the first caribou of the season [34].

Netsilik Inuit hunters were prohibited from hunting caribou in naturally formed caribou crossings in rivers, as to kill caribou at these places was dishonorable [6]. The event whereby Netsilik Inuit drove migrating caribou into manmade crossings was thought of as sacred [113].

The Naskapi regarded caribou as mystic creatures, and required permission from the caribou master to hunt them. The master is portrayed as a white caribou or caribou man with supernatural powers. It is believed that the caribou travel between the master’s land, a white mountain and the migrating grounds. A superstition stated that any man who saw the mystic caribou land would die preventing anyone from seeking it. No amount of goods or promises could be given to a Naskapi to entice him to search for the caribou mountain. Villagers called on the caribou man to request that he send caribou for their people. If the master was offended, he would not send caribou; people starved, and had to leave their homes to search for other foods. Taboos existed against wastefulness as it was important to acquire only what was needed [171]. The Naskapi tied a special string to a caribou to bring it home. This acted as a good luck omen after the kill. They chanted lyrics from dreams to the beat of drums to lure caribou herds close to villages. A hunter who discovered caribou tracks would enter a sweat lodge naked to bring good luck before the hunt [133].

Boreal Caribou

Boreal caribou, also called woodland caribou, which are relatively stationary, migrating very short distances [117], was an important animal for the Lillooet, Wet’suwet’en, Gitksan (Gitxsan), Hare (Sahtu), Slave (Sahtu), Mountain (Sahtu), Loucheux (Gwich’in), Kaska, Tutchone, Han, Nahani, Inuit (including those of Belcher Island), Anishnabeg Ojibway (Anishinabek), Montagnais-Naskapi (Innu), Western Woods Cree and Red Earth Cree [4, 11, 13, 18, 28, 44, 56, 60, 120, 143, 191, 192, 202, 207-212]. Although the Dogrib and Beaver hunted boreal caribou as well, it was not as important as other land mammals [85, 213]. Similarly, the Chipewyan considered the boreal caribou a main animal but not as significant as migratory caribou [195]. The Kutenai (Kootenai) hunted boreal caribou when other resources were exhausted [214].

There was a large boreal caribou population in Canadian forests: boreal, eastern and subarctic areas [1]. In the west, boreal caribou were often said to be found on the plateau [120, 181, 215]. Migrating herds of boreal caribou were large enough to drive into pre-constructed fences, enclosures, and bodies of water [215]. All animals killed were shared and skins were property of the hunter who made the kill [1].

Like other caribou, typically all parts of boreal caribou were consumed: flesh, organs and stomach contents. Caribou meat was often boiled with stones in wooden boxes. Skins were used to make blankets, clothing, sacs, and moccasins. Bones were used to make dice for games and as scrapers for hides [207, 214, 215].

The Lake Saint John Naskapi believed that boreal caribou was human in a previous life and had a master [17]. Boreal caribou played a role in Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en mythology and storytelling [211].

Mountain Caribou

Mountain caribou, found in western and northwestern mountainous regions, were important to several cultures, including the Lillooet [207], Kutenai (Kootenai), and Tutchone [29]. The Han hunted mountain caribou that lived south of the Klondike in the mountains [120]. At summer’s end, the Kaska moved into the mountains to track mountain caribou [117]. When the mountain caribou numbers diminished, the Tutchone turned to moose. The Carrier hunted mountain caribou in small family groups in winter [126]. The Kutenai (Kootenai) hunted mountain caribou individually since there was no great difficulty involved [214]. During winter they were often hunted on snowshoes; horns were used to call the dogs to drive the caribou into deep snow where they were very slow and easily killed with arrows and spears. Occasionally, The Kutenai traveled a large distance to the Tobacco Plains and Yakt to hunt mountain caribou [13]. The decline and complete disappearance of mountain caribou in southern areas during the early 1900s corresponded with an increase in deer [29].

Peary Caribou

Peary caribou is reported to have been one of the animals hunted by the Thule [214]. The animal lived in small isolated groups making it more difficult to hunt than large sea mammals [26]. They generally stayed on the tundra throughout winter [6]. On Banks Island, Peary caribou moved north in winter and south in summer. Other herds were extremely unpredictable and few natural events significantly affected their movements [176].Copper, Netsilik and Iglulik Inuit had access to both sedentary Peary caribou and migratory caribou herds in the regions where they resided [117].


Wild populations of introduced reindeer were reported to be important for several Arctic and Subarctic Peoples, including Tlingit, Tahltan, Tagish, Tutchone, Inuit (including those from Belcher Island), Mushkegowuk, Hudson and James Bay lowlands people [156, 187, 216]. Unlike European and Asian reindeer, north American caribou were not domesticated by Inuit [176]. Reindeer was also mentioned in the ethnographic literature for Greenland and Siberian cultures. Reindeer is reported to have been a main food source for Nganasan of Siberia, whose livelihood depended on the reindeer hunt [217] and it was a supplemental food source for Siberian Yupik and Greenland Inuit [218, 219]. Greenland Inuit considered reindeer stomach content a special treat. Following his time with Greenland Inuit in the late nineteenth century, Nansen observed that “the last wish of the female to her lover departing for hunting is to keep for her the content of the reindeer stomach”, which contained young grasses and moss that the reindeer had recently consumed [219]. The contents of the reindeer stomach were considered a specialty in the West Greenlanders diet, and it provided them with a source of plant food [220]. Siberian Yupik used the meat as both a secular and sacrificial food and used the hide to make hooded parkas for men and winter boots for women; the hair was used to make embroidery thread for men’s belts [40].



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Caribou General

Caribou General

Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) is the most abundant large, hoofed mammal living above 50°N and is present throughout the boreal forest, taiga, and tundra of northern North America and Eurasia. Caribou in Eurasia are called reindeer and have been introduced in the arctic and subarctic. All caribou and reindeer in the world are one species and are presumed to be capable of inter-breeding and producing fertile offspring. In North America, caribou occur in Alaska, all three Canadian territories, and in all Canadian provinces except New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI. The name caribou comes from the Canadian French common name, which is believed to derive from a Mi'kmaq word.

Subspecies classification of caribou is complex and controversial. Increasingly, caribou are classified according to three major ecotypes – migratory caribou, boreal caribou, mountain caribou – and one distinct subspecies present only in the high arctic – Peary caribou. Beyond these various subspecies and ecotypes, caribou are further subdivided into multiple local populations or herds, usually named after geographical features found within their range. For example, migratory caribou that traditionally calve near Beverley Lake, Manitoba are called the Beverley herd, while mountain caribou found year round near the Red Wine Mountains, Labrador are called the Red Wine herd.

The caribou is the only member of its family including deer (Odocoileus spp.), moose (Alces alces), and North American elk (Cervus elpahus), in which both males (bulls) and females (cows) have antlers (although in some caribou populations, only males have them). Generally, adult bulls have larger, more complex antlers and shed them in late autumn or early winter, while female antlers are smaller and simpler and are kept until spring calving. Because female caribou cast their antlers just before calving, concentrations of shed female antlers can sometimes indicate calving areas. Caribou hooves are rounder than most other hoofed mammals, with the hoof tips pointing in towards each other rather than forward as is the case in moose, elk, and deer.

Caribou are dark brown with a creamy mane, belly, and rump, and have a robust body shape, short furry ears and tail, and a long snout. Caribou are bigger than deer, but smaller than moose or elk, and adults typically weigh 109 kg. Male caribou are much bigger than females. Male antlers are elongated and curved towards the back and can spread across more than 1.5 m, with small, flat palms near the front and back, including a distinctive projection extending over the nose, called a brow tine, plough or shovel. Because there is usually only a single brow tine, arising from either the left or right antler (or if there are two, one is larger than the other), the brow tine of caribou is a notable exception to what biologists refer to as bilateral symmetry, the basic body plan of all animals with a backbone (including mammals, birds, lizards and snakes, frogs and salamanders, and fish) and many lacking a back bone (such as worms, insects, and spiders) in which the left side of the body is a mirror image of the right side. Other exceptions to this general pattern include the narwhal tusk, which is an elongated tooth arising from one side of the upper jaw, and the eyes of flatfish like halibut, both of which are located one side of the body.

Caribou have many distinct adaptations that make them perfectly suited for living in the North. Their fur is dense, with a woolly undercoat and long, hollow guard hairs, and covers them from the tip of their nose to the underside of their feet, providing excellent insulation in air and buoyancy in water. Caribou have hooves that are especially broad and curved inward providing large surface areas to support their weight on snow or on thin ice, to make them very fast swimmers, and to help them dig through snow and ice to access food. Elongated and complex bones inside caribou’s muzzle warms cold air when it is inhaled and recovers moisture when it is exhaled.

Caribou occupy a wide range of habitats, from high arctic polar deserts or alpine habitats, where muskoxen or mountain sheep are the only other hoofed mammals present, to boreal forests where they may co-occur with moose, deer, or elk. Unlike other deer, caribou can thrive at high elevations and in tundra environments by feeding mainly on lichens in winter and grass, sedge, moss, and shrubs in winter. In the boreal forest, caribou browse leaves, bark, and twigs from shrubs and trees, but rely heavily on tree and ground lichen in the winter.

Caribou are included in the diet of almost all large predators where ever they occur and predation is the main cause of mortality in both adults and calves with most mortality happening early in life. Caribou calves can walk and run with their mother a few hours after their birth, but are vulnerable to abandonment and starvation or drowning during the first few weeks. Caribou have a lower reproductive potential than other members of the deer family because females do not start breeding until after their second or third year and have only one calf per year. Generally, caribou are not as long-lived as other deer, with male caribou living five to eight years and females slightly longer.

There are more than 2.4 million caribou estimated to live in Canada, but they are less abundant in the southern parts of their range where they are more heavily affected by predators and human activities. Despite the large number of caribou in Canada’s North, some subspecies or populations have been determined to be at risk by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and even listed under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). The main threats to caribou populations include natural disturbances (predation, fires, insects, food sources, weather and climate change), over-harvest, and habitat loss to industrial activity and agriculture.

Migratory Caribou

Migratory caribou, also called barren-ground or tundra caribou, travel yearly to and from calving grounds and occupy the northernmost portion of the species range. Migratory caribou, including the largest herds in North America, spend winter in the southern-most part of their annual range, which is usually below the tree-line, then migrate in spring towards coastal and lowland tundra calving grounds, typically located in the northernmost part of the annual range. A few days after calving, females and calves travel to coastal or inland summer ranges. After calves have grown and cows have replenished fat stores, male and female caribou regroup for the breeding period or rut and start migrating back to their winter ranges. In the tundra, predators and scavengers, including grizzly bears, foxes, wolverines, and ravens, take advantage of the sudden appearance of migratory caribou, some even migrating along with them, like wolves and humans. Caribou herds naturally cycle from high to low numbers over decades, but in this century, most of the migratory herds in northern Canada have declined, some by as much as 85%. However, some herds are stable or increasing, like the Leaf River herd in northern Quebec.

Boreal Caribou

Boreal caribou, also called woodland caribou, are non-migratory and occur in boreal forests across the southern portion of the species range. Boreal caribou tend to live alone or in small groups, and calve in scattered locations across the population’s range. Although boreal caribou do not migrate, they can exhibit seasonal movements among different habitats. During winter, they tend to occupy mature forests with thin and soft snow cover. In the boreal forest, wolves, black bears, grizzly bears, and occasionally coyotes can prey on adult caribou, while lynx and bald eagles prey only on calves. Many boreal caribou populations are threatened, particularly in Gaspesia and north-eastern Alberta, where declining herd size and range contractions are common.

Mountain Caribou

Mountain caribou spend most of the year in alpine habitats in the westernmost portion of the species range. Some mountain caribou calve alone in the same area where they winter, while others migrate significant distances to concentrated calving grounds. Mountain caribou herds are larger and more stable in northern regions, but many southern mountain herds have been reduced to small isolated groups.

Peary Caribou

The Peary caribou is restricted to the high arctic, is non-migratory, and is smaller in body size and more lightly colored than other caribou. Their coat colouration can turn to almost all white during winter. Peary caribou in the high arctic have undergone significant population declines and are classified as an endangered subspecies by COSEWIC.


The reindeer, which is the Eurasian common name for caribou, was introduced from Siberia and Norway, as semi-domesticated populations in arctic and subarctic regions of North America.


Hummel M, Ray JC: Caribou and the North: a shared future. Toronto: Dundurn Press; 2008.


Images provided below were obtained from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History - North American Mammals. Available from

Caribou - male Boreal caribou, left; female (center) and male (right) migratory caribou
Credit: painting by Elizabeth McClelland from Kays and Wilson's Mammals of North America, © Princeton University Press (2002) 
Credit: Data provided by NatureServe in collaboration with Bruce Patterson, Wes Sechrest, Marcelo Tognelli, Gerardo Ceballos, The Nature Conservancy — Migratory Bird Program, Conservation International — CABS, World Wildlife Fund — US, and Environment Canada — WILDSPACE. 
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