Can Reindeer fly? Answers for inquisitive minds this Christmas

  Last updated December 19, 2017 at 10:00 am


It’s that magical time of the year again, when Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas” is bellowed throughout shopping malls all over the country. A time when friends and family come together to share in the experience of overindulgence. And, a time where inquisitive little minds start questioning the cute fairly tales told to them by well-meaning adults desperately trying to keep the magic of Christmas alive.

Credit: Vladimir Melnikov/iStock

How do Reindeer fly? How does Santa get all over the world in one night? And, why doesn’t Santa just use the postal service?

You’ll be pleased to know that these questions are the perfect time to divert curious minds towards something that will satisfy their craving for knowledge: Science!

Let’s tackle the big one first.

Q: Can reindeer really fly?

A: Sorry, little one. To date we have no evidence that suggests reindeer can fly. But there’s something remarkable about reindeer which means they wouldn’t even need to fly to deliver presents all over the world.

Reindeer have fur that is made from two different types of hair: an undercoat of fine, soft wool that sits right next to their skin, and a top layer of long, hollow hairs called guard hairs.

The hollow guard hairs trap air inside them which, not only keeps the reindeer toasty and warm, they also makes them extremely buoyant. This means they are surprisingly good swimmers. When swimming, adults can maintain a speed of 6.5 km/h, or even 10 km/h if they’re behind schedule.

Check out this herd of swimming Reindeer:

Let’s just hope Santa brought his wetsuit.

Q: Why does Rudolf have a red nose?

A: Reindeer noses have evolved so that they warm the freezing air before it enters their lungs.

This is perfect for animals that have to withstand the -16 °C or more December temperatures of Lapland.

A reindeer’s nose has a dense network of blood vessels, with 25 percent more capillaries than humans, carrying red, oxygen-rich blood in their nostrils.

So, with so much blood near the surface of their nose, if you catch them in just the right light the nose can look a little red.

Q: Will I hear the reindeer when they’re on the roof?

A: Reindeer footpads, are soft and spongy when in hot weather so they can walk on the soft marshy ground but if Santa’s reindeer haven’t had time to warm up in the Australian summer heat, the hoofs could be a little harder than usual.

In winter, reindeer hooves harden so they can dig into the ice or snow which stops them from slipping.

There’s also something else that could be making that noise. Check out this video:

Clicking reindeers from Pole of Cold Expedition on Vimeo.

The knees of many subspecies of reindeer make a clicking noise while walking. The clicking can be heard from up to 10 metres away, which scientists believe may be designed to help them stay together in a blizzard.

The noise on the roof could also be a possum.

Q: Does Santa need headlights for the reindeer to see?

A: Although Santa would probably need headlights, the reindeer wouldn’t need them at all.

In winter, a reindeer’s eyes turn blue. The shift to a blue colour scatters light through larger numbers of light-sensitive eye cells so the reindeer can see in winter’s low light.

The colour of the light reflected by reindeer eyes is related to the spacing of collagen fibres in the eye. Reindeer increase the pressure inside their eyeballs during the winter to compress these fibres together, and reducing the spacing between these fibres makes the eyes reflect bluer light.

So, don’t be afraid of answering those tricky reindeer questions this Christmas because science has your back.

About the Author

Andy Stapleton
Andrew Stapleton is a scientist and science communicator based in Adelaide. He is a presenter and producer of the popular podcast Publish, Perish or Podcast, posts weekly science articles on his website and has written for Australasian Science, Cosmos Magazine and ScienceAlert.