Okapi is one of my favourite reindeer, and I think one of the prettiest reindeer in the herd. So, I often find my self taking a photo of her. Sometimes I manage to get a very lovely photo of her looking beautiful. More often though, before I have managed to take the photo she’s come so close that the photo ends up just of her nose! I’m not sure if she thinks my phone is food or if she just really wants a nostril shot. I thought in this week’s blog I would share various Okapi noses over the seasons, plus the occasional successful photo to show how bonnie the rest of her face is. Enjoy!
This winter we have prolonged periods of cold snowy weather, as I write this the weather forecast predicts it’s not going to be above zero during the next two weeks! It’s pretty chilly for us herders even under our many layers, but for the reindeer it’s ideal (if a little mild!) and we have a big happy free-ranging herd.
On Hill Trips we often talk about how reindeer are adapted to Arctic and subarctic life by describing their thick winter coat, large hooves, beards, and their amazing clicking back feet. However, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful and endearing adaptations of a reindeer is their beautifully soft velvet noses!
Out of the 40 odd species of deer in the world, reindeer (and Caribou) are the only deer which have hairy noses rather than shiny, moist ones. This prevents the build up of frost which would occur on a cold wet surface during exhalation; perhaps this is the reason why male polar explorers (and Scottish reindeer herders) often grow beards!
However, the most special part of a reindeer nose is actually on the inside. This blog will endeavour to delve under the cute furry exterior to hopefully show how truly remarkable a reindeer’s nose is…. as well as a good excuse to show lots of lovely fuzzy photos!
There is a complicated and highly specialised arrangement of cartilage, bone, fleshy bits, mucous membranes and blood vessels that make up their nasal passages. Together they form an extremely large surface area; the shape of which is often described as a ‘rolled scroll’ or sometimes a ‘seashell’. This specialised structure allows a reindeer’s nose to remain warm and retain moisture in freezing temperatures as well as allowing them to expel excess heat on warmer days.
A reindeer would soon be chilled if freezing air was to reach their lungs on every breath. To overcome this they have the fascinating ability to change the temperature of the air they inhale before it reaches the lungs, and vice versa. This is all thanks to their ingenious nasal structure, which works as a counter-current heat-exchange system.
For example, if the outside air temperature is -40⁰C, the temperature when the air reaches the reindeer’s lungs is about +38⁰C. In other words, they can change the temperature of the air an incredible 70-80⁰C in less than one second! Additionally, winter air tends to be cold and dry, especially for reindeer that live in higher latitudes. In order for the heated air not to be over dry when it reaches the lungs, a bit of moisture is released from the internal mucous membranes into the air when the reindeer inhales. Move over Rudolph with your shiny red nose, I think that is pretty magic!
On exhalation the opposite happens so a reindeer is able to cool its warm breath, in order to conserve as much body heat as possible. When breathing out they also conserve as much water vapour as possible; especially important when snow may be the only form of water they are able to get!
So when it’s cold in winter, us meagre humans can see our breath as we exhale. However, a reindeer standing at rest in sub-zero temperatures will have no visible breath steaming from their nostrils! That’s because air leaving a human nose is about 32⁰C and the water it contains condenses into visible water droplets as our warm breath meets the cold air. In a reindeer’s nose, warm air is cooled down by about 21⁰C before it is exhaled, saving the majority of the heat. The mucous membranes in the snout recover the moisture, enabling the water in the air to condense inside the nose which then trickles into special folds which direct it to the back of the nose and into the throat, meaning the reindeer exhales drier and partially cooled air.
If you’ve visited us in the last couple of years and met Boris up in the hill enclosure, there’s every possibility that he was the reindeer that left the strongest impression on you. However, he’s not, shall we say, our finest specimen in the herd. He’s not particularly big, nor does he grow the most impressive antlers, but he is, without even a shadow of doubt, the ugliest reindeer in the entire Cairngorm herd (if you’ve not met him, have a good long look at the photos before you say ‘awww, poor thing’…).
Boris was born in 2012, but way out on the mountain free-range rather than in our hill enclosure. We therefore only saw him once in his first summer, and at that stage nobody noticed something rather strange about his face. It was only when he and his mum Foil came into our hill enclosure in the autumn that we realised something was amiss. At first glance it looks like his eyes are wonky, but in reality both are the same distance below his antlers, and it is only below eye level that his nose takes a dive to the right with alarming squint-ness! As Boris has got older and his skull has continued to grow, the nose has become more and more wonky, but it never appears to cause him any problems, and is instead garnering him quite a fan club. Tilly once saw him having a wee sip from a puddle in a neighbouring field that no other reindeer could reach underneath the fence, so perhaps it has its advantages! Somebody who volunteered here a couple of years back once told me they had seen a similar condition in a red deer before, caused by the nasal passages developing in the womb at different rates. I have no idea if this is indeed the case, but anyone reading this has any knowledge on the subject, we’d be delighted to hear from you. We have seen it before, in a lovely male reindeer named Addjá who joined our herd from Sweden in 2004, but his face is barely squint at all in comparison to Boris; he could almost be called handsome! Although I’ve just looked through his photo archive to choose a picture of him – and on second thoughts, perhaps not.
When we take our harness trained reindeer on tour at Christmas time they are trained to pull a sleigh side by side, and as Addjá’s nose bends in the opposite direction to Boris’s, this has led to a bit of a debate here. Should Boris go on the left and Addjá on the right so their noses point into the centre (more stream-lined?) or should it be the other way around? As Addjá is an old boy now and Boris isn’t yet trained to harness, this may be a question we never get to figure out the answer to.