November 12, 2009

Meet the Caribou

It's fall again, and during this time of the year at the Burke, mammals are on our minds. That's because this Saturday is the annual family day, Meet the Mammals. Bring the family and get face-to-face with mammal skulls, touch the fur of big cats and assemble whale vertebrae while talking to Burke mammalogy experts. One Washington State mammal that I personally can't wait to meet is the caribou.

Woodland Caribou, or Rangifer tarandus, are even-toed hoofed mammals (or ungulates) that inhabit North America, Northern Europe and Asia. The Selkirk Herd, found in the north-eastern corner of Washington State, is a herd of roughly 30 members. Caribou are social herding animals that live in groups of no less than 10 and sometimes as large as tens of thousands when congregating at summer feeding grounds.

Caribou are migratory animals that travel over 3,100 miles per year. During these migrations, caribou traverse over all kinds of terrain, and have many adaptations to handle extreme weather conditions. During the winter, caribou have 18,000 hairs per square inch on their bodies that are hollow in order to help insulate the animals in subzero temperatures. The hairs are also hollow, making caribou more buoyant while crossing bodies of water. They are the fastest swimmers of all ungulates, with broad, paddle-like hooves, and can reach speeds of up to 6 mph in the water.

Photo of Woodland Caribou, Rangifer tarandus

Caribou are also the only members of the deer family in which both males and females have antlers; males have larger antlers that can weigh up to 33 pounds! Rutting season is from late August - October. During this time, males will compete for females by sparing, bashing their antlers together and head-butting over mates. Once rutting season is over, males will lose their antlers in the winter and will begin re-growing their antlers once again.

Every mammal has its own story and the Burke’s mammalogy experts are eager to share these stories at Meet the Mammals this weekend. It’s an exciting event with the chance to get up close and personal with mammals of all shapes and sizes—hoofed or not!

Burke visitors touch and examine porpoise skulls at last year's Meet the Mammals

Posted By: Andrea Barber, Communications.