What's the Difference: Reindeer vs. Caribou

Graphic illustration of a caribou with light brown fur and white around its neck. In the distance, the wild herd walk towards us.
Graphic illustration of a caribou.

NPS/Matt Twombly

Caribou and reindeer are the same species and share the same scientific name, Rangifer tarandus. Caribou are what the species is called in North America and reindeer are what they are called in Eurasia. All caribou are wild animals, whereas reindeer can be wild, semi-domesticated, or domesticated (animals selectively bred with a specific purpose in mind). Though there are generalized similarities between caribou and reindeer, their appearance can vary from individual to individual, as it is influenced by diet, environment, and, in the case of reindeer, selective breeding.


Caribou are native to Alaska. While there are many subspecies of caribou throughout the world, the barren-ground subspecies (Rangifer tarandus granti) dominates Alaska. The Western Arctic Caribou herd is among the largest in North America and has a range that encompasses much of the Seward Peninsula, including Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and ranges north past the Utukok River uplands in northern Alaska, where the herd calves. This highly migratory animal has shaped the area’s ecology, and subsistence and cultural practices for the communities found in its range.

Graphic illustration of a caribou calf juxtaposed by a wild herd.
Caribou calf and wild herd.

NPS/Matt Twombly


  • Caribou give birth to reddish-brown calves in late May or early June
  • Caribou are wild and skittish around humans.
  • Caribou are light brown and can produce white fur around their neck and underbelly.
  • Conduct some of the longest terrestrial migrations in the world.

Graphic Illustration of a Reindeer with a brown coat and beige fur around its neck. Behind the reindeer is a person corralling the herd.
Graphic illustration of a reindeer.

NPS/Matt Twombly


Reindeer were introduced to Alaska from Siberia by Reverend Doctor Sheldon Jackson in 1892 to western Alaska because he thought he needed to provide a stable food source for Alaska Native populations and an avenue into private enterprise. Over a period of about 60 years, Inupiat communities and others were trained to herd reindeer through apprenticeship programs. After reaching peak population in the 1930s, the practice of reindeer herding has since dramatically declined. Today, all reindeer herds on the Seward Peninsula are managed by a handful of herders and the Reindeer Herders Association.

The free-ranging reindeer herds can occasionally be seen grazing in the coastal areas of the peninsula or throughout the tundra near villages. You might encounter reindeer herds grazing along the Teller and Kougarok Road. These free-ranging reindeer are prone to run off with wild caribou herds if they come into contact.

Reindeer Calf juxtaposed by a scene at a reindeer corral.
Reindeer calf and corral.

NPS/Matt Twombly


  • Reindeer give birth to dark chocolate brown calves as early as mid-April
  • Reindeer, in Alaska, are domesticated and are considered livestock and private property.
  • Reindeer come in a variety of colors from tawny, beige, white, brown, dark brown, and variations of all the above with spots.
  • Domestic reindeer are bred to be less migratory

Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Gates Of The Arctic National Park & Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park, Noatak National Preserve

Last updated: September 29, 2023