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In-depth
Caribou in Canada
Across the country, caribou are struggling to survive in their ever-changing habitat. Facing a modern world, they are losing the battle.

Photo: istockphoto.com/Paul Loewen   
Caribou subspecies: Peary caribou
Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi) are distinct from other caribou in Canada. With a smaller build and lighter coloured fur, they look deer-like compared to the other subspecies of caribou. On average they weigh 60 kilograms and stand about 1 metre tall. In winter, the Peary caribou’s coat is completely white; in summer the top of the coat from head to tail turns a light shade of grey, while the underbelly and legs remain white. When the antlers first grow in, they are covered in grey velvet.

Peary caribou are only found in the Queen Elizabeth Islands in Canada and on the northwest coast of Greenland. They are divided into three main herds: the Bank’s Island population, the Low Arctic population and the High Arctic population. The Peary herd stays in small groups and individual animals rarely venture away from the herd. The average lifespan is 4.5 years with a maximum of 15 years.


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The desolate conditions of the Arctic make living a challenge for Peary caribou. They roam the islands wherever they can find food, but there is no large migration as with their mainland relatives. These caribou travel where the food is most abundant: river valleys and upland plains in summer; hilltops and ridges in winter as food is easily accessed under thin layers of snow. These herbivores graze on willow, herbs and grasses, and twigs and bark. Building up fat stores through continuous feeding offers a better chance at survival, whether it means surviving harsh winter conditions or being able to reproduce.

Studies on the Peary caribou only started in the early 1960s. Since then the numbers of reported populations have continually decreased. In 2004, COSEWIC declared the Peary caribou an endangered species.

NOTE:
The dawson caribou (Rangifer tarandus dawsoni) were also an island herd formerly found on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). This species is now extinct. As of 1908, the last three caribou were killed — their pelts and bones are preserved and displayed at The Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. Though information is scarce, the dawson caribou were described as having a small build, light-coloured fur, and underdeveloped antlers — females had no antlers. COSEWIC officially classified the dawson caribou as extinct in 2000.

Caribou ranges

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Caribou in Canada
Introduction Changing times Northern significance Caribou subspecies Map Photo Gallery
Video Gallery
Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Serv./B.Stevens
Some migrating caribou walk over 4,400 kilometres in a year between calving grounds and trying to find food.
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