When Europeans arrived in North America, they encountered a species known to them as reindeer. American Indians called these animals caribou. In Nunavut, the caribou is known as tuktu.
More than 750,000 caribou in two distinct ecological situations live in Nunavut. On the mainland, caribou live on the tundra from spring to late summer, then migrate south into the vast boreal forest for the winter. Caribou that remain on the tundra throughout the year are, for the most part, restricted to relatively small islands. These animals are usually seen in smaller groups than the migratory caribou that winter among the southern trees. Nevertheless, caribou wintering on the tundra migrate between seasonal habitats within Nunavut. Most migrate over shorter distances than mainland caribou, but some on Baffin Island travel several hundred kilometres each spring.
Caribou can be seen near several communities in winter and spring. In summer and fall, bulls may be seen along the coast, but cows are usually farther inland near their June calving areas.
The caribou has always been the most important land mammal to the Inuit; until very recently, the lives of Inuit were inextricably linked to these great wanderers. In times of scarcity, the Inuit not only risked starvation, but faced winters of perpetual cold without the unsurpassed insulation of caribou-skin clothing. The unique structure of the caribou’s hollow hair makes its fur extremely warm, yet easily worn. A hunter’s caribou clothing needs to be replaced every few years because it will not retain its warmth.
In Nunavut, biologists have traditionally recognized three subspecies of caribou. Barren-ground caribou is the most common, occupying the mainland and some southern Arctic islands. Although caribou on Baffin Island are officially barren-ground caribou, Inuit recognize several distinct characteristics between Baffin and mainland animals. Some scientific data suggests that there may be a genetic basis for these distinctions.
More recent DNA genetics tests suggest that barren-ground, Baffin and the diminutive Peary caribou may all be one subspecies. Nevertheless, Peary caribou on the Queen Elizabeth Islands, which are north of Parry Channel, are recognized as “endangered” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Peary caribou are naturally rare because the sparse vegetation in the High Arctic is usually buried beneath snow and ice for up to 10 months each year.
Many caribou on the mid-Arctic islands west of Baffin Island appear similar to Peary caribou, while others look more like barren-ground caribou.
A third subspecies, reindeer originally descended from Siberian stock, was introduced to the Belcher Islands in eastern Hudson Bay in 1978, about 100 years after native caribou had disappeared. Concerned that unrestricted growth of this free-ranging population could lead to overgrazing and potential future extinction, Inuit of Sanikiluaq have successfully stabilized their numbers at 600 to 800 animals. There are concerns that some woodland caribou from Quebec have migrated across 100 kilometres of sea ice, and some of the reindeer have joined them on their return to Quebec.
Caribou bulls average 100 to 150 kilograms, while cows reach 75 to 100 kilograms. The types of caribou differ in size, color and behavior. Peary caribou are the smallest. During summer, Peary and Baffin caribou are not known to form dense groups numbering in the thousands, as do the barren-ground caribou on the mainland, perhaps because they do not have to endure thick clouds of mosquitoes and other insects. Reindeer are typically seen in large, dense groups, even during winter.
*Reproduced from an article Land Mammals by Marian and Mike Ferguson
contained in the Nunavut Handbook