The caribou is a symbol of the northern wilderness and typically occupies three main areas in the north: the Barren Lands, the woodlands, and the mountains. Because of these distinctive population areas, caribou were once classified as three distinct subspecies. More recent study has classified all caribou as one species, including the North American and European varieties.
Caribou are designed for the north, with large bodies better suited to conserving heat, and broad hooves suitable for digging through ice and snow or travelling atop it to get at sources of food. Unlike other members of the deer family, both caribou males and females grow large antlers. Distinguished only by overall size, the male caribou antlers are larger. The caribou’s coat changes from brown or greyish brown in the summer to a lighter grey brown in the winter. Caribou subsist on a diet which includes grass and moss in the summer, and tree leaves and bark in the winter. Lichen is a favoured source of food for caribou, and the animals will eat this plant throughout the year.
Traditional hunters and trappers of the boreal forest have long relied on caribou as an essential source of meat, but caribou also served another important function in expanding the range of natural nutrients available to the people of the northwest. Lichen, while a very common plant in the north, contains cellulose, which cannot be digested by humans in the raw. Like other deer, the caribou has a chambered stomach that allows it to digest the raw lichen into a substance called rumen. When consumed by humans, this partially digested stage of lichen allowed them to benefit from the nutrients in the plant.
Very little from the caribou was wasted by traditional hunting and trapping peoples. Antlers and bones could be crafted into carvings and tools, and the hide could be a mattress covering, a blanket, or even a drum covering. Strips of this hide could also be fashioned into rope or lacing material, depending on the need. Caribou hair tufting was one popular artistic use of the animal, while sinew from the neck of a caribou was useful for making string or thick thread