Science unwraps the reindeer genome for Christmas

Just in time for the holidays, researchers have unraveled some mysteries surrounding the season’s most iconic animal: the reindeer.

Though they say their work is “unlikely to reveal why Santa’s reindeer can fly,” researchers have finished sequencing the genome of the reindeer, the world’s only domesticated deer. Flying aside, what the information can do is allow for better understanding of how reindeer have changed over time, adapting to extreme environments and being domesticated.

To get their results, the China-based researchers took a blood sample from a two-year-old female reindeer from a domesticated herd belonging to a group of nomadic hunters. From there, they sequenced, assembled and annotated the genome, finding that the reindeer genome contains 2.6 billion base pairs — smaller than that of humans, but about the same size as the sheep genome.

The researchers then made an evolutionary tree containing the newly-sequenced genome and the genomes of cattle and goats. Based on this information, they deduced that all three animals separated from a common ancestor around 30 million years ago, during an era when grasslands were expanding globally.

Having the reference genome for such a unique animal to study and compare to other species could bring many benefits to animal husbandry and animal science. The reindeer — more commonly known as caribou in North America — is the only deer found across the world, spanning the northern regions of Asia, North America and Europe. It’s also the only species whose female animals grow antlers in addition to the males. Apart from being used to pull sleighs (including flying sleighs), reindeer are kept for meat, hides, antlers and even for their protein-rich milk.

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