Why the reindeer loves its mushrooms

For those of you who forage, or for those of you who are naturalists, or even for those of you who aren’t, you’ll know that now is the time for mushrooms. The reindeer know this too, and they have long clocked into the secret of where the best places are, and at this time of year they can be found down in the woods, where all the best mushrooms grow.

Spotted you!

Reindeer can eat mushrooms that are poisonous to us, and will even seek them out. They have a trick to this that is shared by many other ruminants – having four stomachs and a specialised form of digestion.

Reindeer digestion works as follows:

  • The reindeer eats a lot of food very quickly and stores it in its first stomach.
  • The reindeer brings the eaten food back up to its mouth and chews it (chewing the cud) then swallows it into stomach number 2. Stomach number 2 contains many microorganisms which can break down the plant material in a way in which us mammals can’t.
  • The reindeer brings the food back up into the mouth and chews it a third time. Now the food is mixed with microorganisms and the reindeer chews them all up too. Yummy. The food is then swallowed into stomach 3.
  • Stomach number 3 absorbs all the water from the food and passes it onto stomach number 4, which is similar to our stomach and contains lots of acid to break the food down further.
  • Food passes into the intestines and all the goodness from the food and the chewed microorganisms is absorbed.
The complicated stomach of a reindeer, with four stomachs. The rumen, the largest of the four, contains the microorganisms which break down food for the reindeer. Diagram from Wikipedia.

This incredible process means that the microorganisms living in the stomach deal with all the mushroom poisons, and the reindeer gets off scot free. It also means that reindeer can live off of lichen over the winter, when no other food is available, giving them a big advantage over other animals.

A carpet of lichen provides a tasty snack for a mother and calf, all thanks to fantastic digestion abilities.

So with the poisons all gone, the reindeer is free to enjoy the mushroom (and any of its other properties!). One of their favourites is the Fly Agaric, the traditional ‘Christmas mushroom’, with its red cap and white spots, and hallucinogenic chemicals. This we believe is sometimes the culprit for any missing reindeer that we find later on in the day, sleeping soundly beside a pile of chewed stems!

A beautiful arrangement of Fly Agarics. Photo from Wikipedia.


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