Scientific name: Rangifer tarandus

Common name: Reindeer, or caribou, if wild in North America


The scientific name Rangifer tarandus comes from the Old French rangier, meaning a reindeer, ferus, which is Latin for wild and untamed, or also possibly from the Old Swedish ren, meaning a reindeer, ferus (Latin) for wild, and tarandus (Latin) for animal of the northern countries.10

The common name "reindeer" originated from the Old Norse hreindryi, with the word hreinn being another name for horned animal, plus the word dyr, meaning deer, before the year 1400. The name "caribou" is French, and comes from the words "Mi'kmaq qualipu" meaning “snow shoveler,” referring to its habit of pawing through the snow for food.7


Complete Classification

The complete classification of Rangifer tarandus is listed below, with examples of the attributes that place it into each taxonomic division.




Cells contain membrane-bound nucleus with DNA and  organelles



Multicellular; heterotrophic; lack cell walls; motile at some time in development



Bilaterally symmetrical; tripoblastic; cephalized; complete digestive tract; notochord; dorsal nerve cord; endostyle; pharyngeal pouches;  post-anal tail; all of these present at some time in development



Three middle ear bones; hair; milk production by mammary glands6



Even-toed ungulates; weight held by third and fourth toes; domesticated; astragalus bone with double-pulley structure; canines small or absent; low and high-crowned molars10



Specialized digestive tract; four-chambered stomach; teeth with crescent-shaped ridges; cannon bone in foot; navicular and cuboid bones fused; third and fourth digits well-developed, with the second and fifth vestigial10



Advanced ruminant stomach; cranial appendages (horns)10



Antlers; selenodont cheek teeth; absent upper incisors with three incisors on each side of bottom jaw joined by a canine; four toes on each foot with lateral toes small and not touching the ground; cannon bone; postorbital bar; weight borne on third and fourth digits, space between nasal, lacrimal, and frontal; five tarsals; four-chambered stomach8



Telemetacarpal foot structure; second and fifth metacarpals present as distal splinter of bone; pedal glands in hind legs and tarsal glands present; pause between when antlers are shed and a new pair grows10



Referred to as reindeer or caribou; prevalent in Arctic tundra regions of Eurasia, as well as North America; both males and females have antlers- a characteristic of the species (see Home for more general characteristics)10


Rangifer tarandus

The only species of genus Rangifer (see above)





The following phylogenetic trees show the Order Artiodactyla to demonstrate related even-toed ungulate species to Rangifer tarandus, as well as a tree showing the Family Cervidae to indicate its closest relatives.


Order Artiodactyla Family Tree

 Huffman, B. 2009. "Cetartiodactyla Family Tree." (image) <>. Accessed 4 April 2009.

                                                           Brent Huffman,

 The evolutionary history of the artiodactyls is well-known due to their large bones and prevalence of fossils. The first artiodactyl fossils were found 54 million years ago from the early Eocene Era in North America and Europe. All contained 44 low-crowned teeth, four toes on each foot, and no cranial appendages.  The artiodactyls became further specialized in the Oligocene Era,  especially in Eurasia.  Today the order is very strong and still extremely diversified, with the 10 families shown. Prior to this, 18 recognized families under the order of Artiodactyla have gone extinct.10 


The above tree is based on morphological data from examination of fossils, but recently the family Cetacea, which contains the whales and dolphins, have been added to the Artiodactyla based upon molecular evidence comparing DNA sequences.  The DNA of whales was found to be very closely related to hippos, and hippos are grouped under the order Artiodactyla, containing the ruminants under which Rangifer tarandus is classified. Researchers also tracked the movement of transposons called SINE's in the genome and found that they inserted themselves at the same point in ruminant, whales, and hippos. This led to grouping of the Cetaceans under the Order Artiodactyla, and some now call it Cetartiodactyla. 10


 Cervidae Family Tree

 Huffman, B. 2009." Cervidae Family Tree." (image) <>. Accessed 4 April 2009.

                                             Brent Huffman,

Cervidae first appeared as fossils in the early Miocene of Asia, and then expanded to occupy many different niches. During the Miocene Era, many migrated to North America where they expanded into the Nearctic region, and then during the Pleistocene Era, crossed to South America.  All members of this family except one species possess antlers composed entirely of bone, characteristic only to this family. Evidence for structure of the above phylogenetic tree is also based upon the fossil record and distinguishing morphological characteristics.10


The family Cervidae contains the following subfamilies and the species contained within each.  Note that reindeer are in the subfamily Capreolinae. 

Subfamily Capreolinae

 European elk, American moose, Marsh deer, European and Siberian roe deer, Brockets, Mule deer, White-tailed deer, Pampas deer, Northern pudu, and Reindeer/Caribou.


Subfamily Cervinae

Axis deer, Calamian deer, Kuh's deer, Hog deer, Red deer, Japanese deer, American elk, Tufted deer, Milu, Muntjacs, Thamin, and Swamp deer.


Subfamily Hydropotinae

Chinese Water Deer


The Capreolinae subfamily phylogenetic tree below shows the most closely related species to Rangifer tarandus.  Note that branch lengths are not proportional to time.  There are four main tribes within Capreolinae, including Alceini (moose), Capreolini (roe deer), Rangiferini (caribou), and Odocoileini (New World Deer).  The Capreolinae are the most successful ungulates of the New World, and many are of  slightly different forms due to radiation into different niches. The origin of the Capreolinae subfamily is relatively unknown because there are few fossils available,  but most are placed into this group through morphological similarities.  It is thought that they diverged from the Old World Cervidae during the Miocene era.  The earliest fossil appeared in this subfamily in North America and Eurasia 5 million years ago. 10


Capreolinae Subfamily Tree

  Huffman, B.  2005. "Capreolinae Phylogeny." (image) <>. Accessed 13 April 2009.

                                                  Brent Huffman,


Check out these pages below to learn about some of Rangifer tarandus's closest relatives:


 White-Tailed Deer

 Mule Deer


Interested in where reindeer are found?  Check out their habitat next!



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