Emblazoned on millions of Canadian coins for more than 70 years, the caribou is signified by its antlers. The barren ground caribou’s impressive set rises from its head with shorter branches coming forward and a pair of much longer branches, sweeping back and upwards. The ends of the antlers possess finger-like projections. As antler loss is hormonal, a pregnant caribou will keep her antlers through the winter and once she gives birth lose them. Males, in general, will lose antlers soon after mating and other non-breeding females will lose them around the same time as the males.
This type of caribou has a compact body with small ears, a short tail and a very hairy muzzle, which lowers heat loss. After winter, the white and grey fur will become shaggy and the back of the animal will turn brown with new hair growth. The summer coat ends up being a top layer of brown and a bottom layer of white. However, colouring can differ depending on where the animal lives, as well as its herd subspecies. Each hair follicle is hollow, enabling it to trap air that provides insulation, making caribou fur exceptionally warm.
The legs are mainly dark in all seasons, sometimes even darker than the body. The broad hoofs have two main toes and two spreading, claw-like appendages that support the animal’s weight, as well as allowing it to scrape at the ground and forage.
Habitat and behaviour
This subspecies of caribou is found mainly among the gently rolling hills of the large and open Arctic barren lands. Its main food source in winter is lichen. Otherwise it feeds on shrubs, grasses, flowers and mushrooms when available.
After mating in the fall, the female usually gives birth to a single calf in the spring, always returning to the same calving grounds. These sites are generally safer as they are isolated and thus see less traffic from predators such as wolves, bears and coyotes. Mothers will also clean a calf by licking it to remove the smell of birth, thereby protecting the newborn from enemies.
Barren ground caribou are generally found in the central and eastern regions of the Northwest Territories and a large portion of Nunavut. The animals generally migrate twice a year. Some estimates have them travelling up to 4,000 kilometres a year. However, this may include a lot of back and forth movement; a herd average would be closer to 2,000 to 3,000 kilometres.
This is by far the most numerous of the subspecies of caribou found in Canada with estimates of the population more than three-quarters of a million. Other subspecies include the Peary caribou and the Porcupine (Grant’s) caribou.