Traveling in herds of thousands they blanket the lansdcape. The herd instinct serves them well but often makes them appear deficient in mental faculties. Because they are very curious they will often walk through camp or swim the river in front of us.
Antlers play a key role in the herd. Caribou are unique in that both males (bulls) and females (cows) have antlers, unlike deer, moose and elk where the cows do not have antlers. The caribou with the largest antlers dominates the herd resulting in the best food and prime breeding opportunities. Therefore, the bulls, with their large antlers, dominate the herd in preparation for the fall rut, or breeding. Shortly after the rut, the bulls drop their antlers while the cows retain theirs throughout the winter. As a result, the smaller antlers of the cow caribou, now carrying a calf to be born in early June, allow them to dominate the herd. This affords them the best winter feed that sustains the development of the fetus until birth. Cows routinely allow bulls to paw through the winter snow to expose the mosses and lichens underneath and then just as the bull is beginning to feed they will give it a “poke in the ribs” with their antlers and “eat-up”. Nature has cleverly masterminded the role of antlers in the caribou herd!
This article was originally published in our Northern Currents newsletter during the winter of 2001.