Ecology and Life
The puppy room easing life's pain in a stroke
Gentle wobblings of a 'foul gull' fulmar
Frigatebird returns to nest on Ascension for first time since Darwin
New to Nature No 94: Canthigaster criobe
Uggie: 'He likes to fly first class'
It's a dog's life in China: sold for £1m or stolen and sold as meat
Malibu residents hire crew to remove rotting whale carcass from beach
Yellowstone's popular alpha female wolf shot dead by hunters outside park
What I miss most in the dead time of winter is the insects
BSE testing on cattle slaughtered for food 'no longer necessary'
Malaysia seizes 1,500 elephant tusks headed for China
The vibrant river was a welcome relief after the bleak, snow-covered fields
TV Review: Miniature Britain; Weight Loss Ward; Rome
Marine conservation group says UK lacks ambition to preserve seas
UK seas to gain 31 marine conservation zones
Live animal exports going via previously unknown routes
When a dozing otter steals the show
Newly discovered slow loris species already threatened
What the male bowerbird can teach us about home furnishings
Could this really be the fearsome, legendary Girt Dog reincarnate?
Overfishing is a solvable environmental challenge for the EU
Life comes cheap for winter wrens
Ash trees consumed by something of the night
Foie gras taken off menu in House of Lords
  Alice Roberts: Rudolph and our early ancestors a love story
Reindeer are almost mythical creatures. They are associated with Santa Claus and sleighs, with the idea of a Scandinavian icy white Christmas that is far more magical than the reality we normally experience in warmish, wettish Britain. But for me there's also something very special about reindeer because they are survivors from the Ice Age, clinging on when so many other magnificent large mammals died out at the end of the Pleistocene, through climate change or human hand or a bit of both. They are animals that were important to our ancestors, and animals that are still revered by the Siberian tribes who have a long history of hunting and herding them.

I first visited the icy north of Siberia five years ago while making a BBC documentary about ancient human migrations. We were filming with indigenous Siberians of the Evenki tribe, and staying in a remote reindeer-herders camp living in tents that were kept warm with larch stoves while it was a bone-chilling -40C outside. (The stoves went out overnight and in the morning I would wake up to find my eyelashes stuck together with ice.)

There were reindeer all around us in the snowy, sparse larch forest. At night, they came in, walking cautiously around our tents, the thick fur behind their large hooves muffling their footsteps. One morning I wandered off into the forest to answer a call of nature. A single pure-white reindeer followed me. I wandered further and further with the reindeer following me a few paces behind. It felt as though I had made some kind of connection with this beautiful, ethereal creature. After I had done what I'd come for, I started to make my way back to camp, and wondered if the reindeer would follow me back. He didn't. Instead, he started tucking into the yellow snow I'd created. The mystical moment was shattered. He wanted nothing more than a few salts from my urine. Later I discovered that this apparently common behaviour was enshrined in a Siberian myth about the domestication of the first reindeer: a woman who went for a wee managed to catch and tame a reindeer who, like mine, had been after the yellow snow.

Long before humans domesticated reindeer, though, they hunted them, and reindeer-hunting was part of the reason our ancestors were able to colonise the polar north. We know that 30,000 years ago, modern humans Homo sapiens like us were living right up on the coast of the Arctic ocean. At one Arctic site, archaeologists have found ivory and horn spear-ends, stone tools and huge quantities of butchered animal bones, most of them reindeer. Those hardy hunters were surviving in extreme conditions: the average temperature in Siberia back then was even colder than it is today. We can only assume that those ancient Siberians made good use of reindeer fur in the same way that the modern Evenki do, to make clothes and boots. They would have been silly not to. I was given a pair of Evenki reindeer boots, and they are far warmer than the felt-lined expedition boots I was sent to Siberia with. The thermal properties of reindeer fur are legendary: it has a thick felty layer of underwool and long thick guard hairs that appear to be hollow, but on inspection under a microscope each hair turns out to have a core of vacuolated, keratinised cells.

Our European ancestors painted a great range of animals in their cave-cathedrals, but there's no doubt that they were particularly partial to reindeer. In some Aurignacian sites, 99% of the animal remains are from Rangifer tarandus, and this predilection for reindeer seems to distinguish our own ancestors from those other ancient denizens of Europe, the Neanderthals. As for what reindeer like to eat, you might think it was reindeer moss. But that's a misnomer reindeer moss is in fact lichen. And while reindeer eat plenty of it in the winter months, digging through the snow with their broad feet to get at it, I expect that they are happy when the summer arrives and there are far more juicy and delicious plants to eat.

The end of the ice age saw a massive global extinction: many large mammals fell prey to changing climate and the effect of some rather formidable hunters sharing their landscape. There was a decline in the genetic diversity of reindeer after the peak of the last ice age 20,000 years ago probably due to a warming climate as well as those palaeolithic hunters but reindeer survived, and thankfully they don't look likely to become extinct any time soon.

I think our ancestors appreciated reindeer as beautiful creatures, as well as a source of food. The hunter-herders of Siberia still revere the wild reindeer, and give them sky burials on platforms in trees after hunting, killing and butchering them. One of the most extraordinary pieces of palaeolithic art is a 13,000-year-old ivory carving of two reindeer, found in Montastruc in France, but now in the British Museum. Some experts have interpreted them as swimming reindeer because their heads are thrown back and their antlers lie along their necks but they have to be that way to fit into the tapering tusk. When those reindeer were carved, western Europe would have been a very different place, emerging from the ravages of the last ice age, and that small sculpture is a connection to a lost world. There's so much more to reindeer than red noses and sleigh bells.
New to Nature No 96: Oncopodura fadriquei
Animal rights activists plan direct action against beagle imports
How the stink of a waterbuck could prevent sleeping sickness in Kenya
Tatler's dog, Alan, dies in bizarre revolving door accident
Insecticide 'unacceptable' danger to bees, report finds
Freedom Foods 'failing to crack down' on poor salmon farming standards
One in 10 Welsh livestock farmers illegally kill badgers, study suggests
Crab study puts pain on the menu
A large shape a bittern flies across the pond
Wolf killings are based on the most cynical of premises
New to nature No 97: Ferrisia uzinuri
Sad to see the tide turn against the otter
An owl swoops down on wings that seem as broad as they are long
Animals: are they good for supper or good companions?
Is human branding an animal-rights stunt too far?
Cat lovers pounce on campaign to save New Zealand's birds
Common pesticides 'can kill frogs within an hour'
There is something irresistibly cheerful about a flock of twite
Solomon Islands villagers kill 900 dolphins in conservation dispute
Mistle thrush numbers in decline
Guyana pledges to protect jaguars
Dung beetles navigate by the stars
How do you catch an escaped crocodile?
New to Nature No 98: Xerophytacolus claviverpus
Animal astronauts: the unsung heroes of space exploration
Pygmy elephants found dead in Borneo after 'poisoning'
A badger's biscuit-sized footprints in the snow follow the field edge
British moths in calamitous decline, major new study reveals
The lake is muted under the winter sun, like a faint watercolour painting
Should the RSPCA have pursued the man who ate a live goldfish?
Days of heavy rain have left the ancient woodland sodden
Alice Roberts: Rudolph and our early ancestors a love story
Saving the rhino with surveillance drones
Hunting with dogs ban unlikely to get free vote admit top Tories
The tracks in the snow revealed the secrets of these night visitors
A perfect winter's day for a walk
Meet the woman battling Japan's whaling fleet in Antarctic ocean
China captivated by tiny tuneful insects that sing for their supper
HBO sued by animal rights worker over abuse of horses on Luck
Some surprising facts about hedgehogs
Cats killed in cattery fire
Experience: my horse sank in quicksand
Alys Fowler: fat balls and mealworms
Hawks in danger of extinction in illegal hunting campaign
What the Japanese red bug teaches us about parenting
Fishermen back sanctions against Iceland over mackerel catch
What I learned the day a dying whale spared my life
Overfishing causes Pacific bluefin tuna numbers to drop 96%
Glistening with water droplets, the black-throated diver looked almost eerie
Kitten swallows 15cm-long TV aerial
As the rain blows over, a double rainbow arcs across the sky
A moorhen sent stone-skimmer splashes as it pattered across the river
Visit Statistics