Christmas and nature

The Christmas holidays are rich in tradition. Some (like decorating a tree) date back hundreds of years; others (like wearing tasteless woolen jumpers) are much more recent! Although customs differ from country to country, they all have a strong connection to nature.

In the UK, the robin, mistletoe and holly are all symbols of Christmas…not to mention the turkey on the table! In the Christmas story itself, animals are never far away. Mary’s donkey, the camels of the Three Wise Men. And, in a more modern Christmas story, where would Father Christmas be without his trusted reindeer?

Similar histories

If you think about it, these are both stories about human dependence. It’s not by chance that the animals featured are camels and reindeer. Both have an extremely long history of domestication.

Humans from Scandinavia to Siberia have relied on reindeer for meat, hides, antlers and for transport since the Bronze Age.

The same is true of camels. Dromedary camels (with one hump) have been domesticated in the Arabian Peninsula and Bactrian camels (with two humps) in Inner Asia since ancient times.

Double Humped Camels at Nubra Valley. By Supritam Basu |
Double Humped Camels at Nubra Valley. By Supritam Basu |

Different families

Camels and reindeer are both large, herbivorous species, but that’s where the similarities end! Camels belong to the Camelidae family, along with llamas and alpacas. Reindeer, also known as Caribou, are Cervidae.

They have evolved in completely different conditions. Each species, in their own way, is highly adapted to survive in its specific habitat. Let’s have a look how!

Difficult terrain

Travelling over sand can be tiresome, but not for camels. Camels have special two-toed feet that spread out when they touch the ground. This adaptation ensures that they don’t sink into the sand as they walk.

Reindeer are equally well adapted with fur covered hooves to protect them from the snow. Not only that, but their hooves change in size over the course of the year. In the winter when the ground is hard, they are more compact. However, when the ground softens in the summer months, their hooves expand!

Reindeers in natural environment, Tromso region, Northern Norway. By Dmitry Chulov |
Reindeers in natural environment, Tromso region, Northern Norway. By Dmitry Chulov |

Extreme temperatures

When we think of camels, we think of the desert. And when we think of the desert, we think of extreme heat. However, camels have evolved to survive in an incredible range of temperatures, from -40°C to +40°C. Their bushy eyebrows protect their eyes from the sun and they close their nostrils between breaths to keep the dust out and to conserve water.

Reindeer also have specially adapted noses. Rudolph’s red nose really isn’t far from the truth! They have a large amount of blood capillaries to keep their noses warm. As well as that, they have a system that warms up air as they inhale and condense water from expired air before it is exhaled.

Camel special two-toed feet. By schankz |
Camel special two-toed feet. By schankz |

Special diets

A camel’s most defining feature is its hump(s). A camel’s hump is full of water…well, not quite!

It’s true that camels can survive for long periods – even months at a time – without water, but their humps actually contain fat. This can then be broken down to provide the camel with energy and water. When water is available, they drink a lot – up to 113 litres in a matter of minutes!

With food often scarce, camels have adapted to eat almost anything. Their thick lips and rough tongue allow them to feed on all types of desert shrubs, even thorny ones. Digestion’s not a problem though, thanks to their special stomachs with three chambers.

Reindeer have gone one better than that. They are ruminants, which means they have a stomach made up of four chambers! This helps them digest ferns, grasses and leaves, as well as trees, moss and lichen.

In the winter months, they have to dig through the snow to find food. This goes to explain why native Americans – speakers of Micmac – named it the caribou. This translates as ‘snow-shoveller’!

Reindeer feet in northern Finland Lapland. By Stepanov Ilya |
Reindeer feet in northern Finland Lapland. By Stepanov Ilya |

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James is a freelance language professional based in Barcelona. Besides writing articles for Zoo Portraits, he writes about education and teaches English as a foreign language in businesses, universities and other institutions around the city.


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