It is coming up to Santa’s busy time. Last minute preparations are being made, lists are being checked and double checked, routes are being analysed and optimised. Elves will be working overtime to put the finishing touches to their orders. But please spare a thought for Rudolph and the team of reindeer called on to drag tons of presents over thousands of miles in the most appalling weather.
It’s worst for Rudolph, of course. The world’s most renowned reindeer has to put up with all the name-calling and laughter from fellow reindeer. Not only that, but ever since he first came to prominence in a 1939 story written by Robert May, followed by real fame a decade later with Gene Autry’s hit song Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, we’ve been getting Rudolph completely wrong.
For a start, Rudolph and team are probably female. All the images I’ve seen of Rudolph clearly show a reindeer proudly sporting antlers. Reindeer are the only deer where both sexes grow antlers, but the males lose them around Christmas time and regrow them in the spring ready for the mating season. The only way a male reindeer can hang on to his magnificent headgear through the festive season is to be castrated. Losing the source of the sex hormones upsets the antler cycle – and probably the reindeer too.
We need to talk about that nose as well. The red glow from Rudolph’s most famous attribute is probably caused by something more serious than a bad cold. Reindeer noses are a brilliant product of evolutionary adaptation to a harsh environment. The nasal passages contain many elaborate folds covered in blood vessels. When a reindeer breathes in, the abundant blood vessels warm up the air keeping the inside of the reindeer nice and warm even when the air around it is sub-zero. On the way out, the same blood vessels cool the air, minimising heat loss and retaining as much water vapour as possible.
The unfortunate downside of such an intricate nasal arrangement is that it is a very comfortable spot for parasites to lurk. There are 20 parasites unique to mainland reindeer, and many others that are just as happy in reindeer or other ruminants. That red nose is therefore probably due to parasitic infection and increased blood flow to the area where the body is doing its best to fight off invaders.
All-in-all, Rudolph must be feeling dreadful as she slogs through a foggy Christmas Eve dragging a heavily loaded sleigh behind her. Rudolph and her reindeer companions do have one very enviable trait though: they can fly.
At first glance reindeer would not appear to be physiologically suited to flight. But it’s possible reindeer have gone one better than aerodynamics – antlerdynamics. It is possible that those antlers create distortions in the air currents as they race through the sky that could give them some lift. However, other deer don’t seem to become airborne, no matter how big their antlers or how fast they run. There must be more to it.
One theory of the cause of flying reindeer also explains Santa’s dress sense. It all comes down to one mushroom: Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric. Father Christmas’s colour scheme may be in honour of the white-speckled, red-capped mushroom so beloved of fairy tales. The mushroom is closely related to several highly toxic species such as the death cap (Amanita phalloides) and destroying angel (Amanita virosa). Freshly picked fly agaric contains ibotenic acid, which converts to muscimol when the mushroom is dried. Muscimol is a powerful hallucinogen, ten times more powerful than ibotenic acid.
Muscimol interacts with receptors in the brain resulting in hallucinations; inanimate objects appear alive, objects distort in size, time and space become distorted. It is probably eating the fly agaric mushroom that made Alice grow alternatively tall and short when she visited Wonderland. Other effects of the mushroom are less appealing and include anxiety, nausea, vomiting, twitching, convulsions and coma.
Fly agaric was the recreational drug of choice in several parts of Europe before vodka was introduced. Shamans of the tribes that herd reindeer in Siberia and Lapland would collect the mushrooms and carefully prepare them to optimise the mind-enhancing properties – and minimise the other dangerous toxins within the mushroom (of which there are several). The amount of muscimol also varies enormously from mushroom to mushroom, so trying this yourself is a risky business and definitely not advisable.
The shamans had the benefit of generations of practical knowledge and years of experience. They believed they could use the mushrooms to travel to the spirit realm in search of answers to local problems, such as a sudden outbreak of illness. The effect of the muscimol gave the impression of flying out through the chimney of the shaman’s abode and travelling to the spirit world where they could seek advice.
Muscimol passes through the body relatively unchanged which means that the shaman’s urine also had potent hallucinogenic properties. The effects of the mushroom can still be felt even if the drug has passed through five or six people and this is probably the origin of the phrase “getting pissed”.
Reindeer happening upon these patches of yellow snow left by the shaman might well frolic, gambol and skip around in the snow, off their antlers on mind-altering drugs. Perhaps, even, as they jumped up in the air, the sun in the northern regions would be low in the sky, silhouetting them in a characteristic flying pose ...
So Rudolph may be under the influence, and given her working conditions, I’m not sure I blame her. Then again, maybe science doesn’t have the answer. Maybe Santa and his reindeer really do fly.