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Reindeer defend themselves by going round in circles like a cyclone

Credit: Video screenshot

A thousand years ago, the Vikings hunted reindeer in Norway.  So they could defend themselves from their aggressors, herds of reindeer turned in a counterclockwise or clockwise circle. A bit like the eye of a storm.  This remarkable strategy is still being observed today in Russia and Norway. 

When do the defend themselves like this

This  technique was presented in a report broadcast on the American TV channel PBS in the documentary called “The Wild Way of the Vikings”.  During the reconstruction of the Vikings way of life around the year 1000 there was a particularly striking image.  We know already that reindeer were hunted at the time for their meat, skins (as forms of clothing and material and for their antlers so they could made into weapons.  However when they need to defend themselves the reindeer adopted a particularly incredible and enchanting strategy which aimed to destabilize their aggressors.

In this scene called the “cyclone”, a solitary hunter (an actor playing the role of a viking) is about to shoot one of his arrow when the machine starts. Like a sort of gigantic vice which tightens at the centre.  This intelligent strategy, according to the documentary, aimed to disorientate their predators. As a result the hunter would be incapable of targeting a precise animal.

Stressful environment and protection of new born

This behaviour reminds us of an incredible video of shot in Russia recently and in Norway.  These reindeer are in an enclosed field and instinctively start turning in a circle without stopping.  Many questions about this phenomena have been asked. A 2002 study published in Rangifer suggested that reindeer kept in pens or that are forced to regroup could actually adopt this type of behavior in response to stressful events.

Other explanation have also been put forward to explain this behaviour.  It could be a defense mechanism which aims to protect the weakest members of the group at the centre of the circle.  Regular monitoring of a herd in central Norway over a two-year period (1993-1994) revealed that wild reindeer showed no preference to the direction that they took.

On the other hand, animals forced to clump together seemed to mostly turn to the left, counterclockwise. More precisely, out of 35 reindeer herding districts surveyed, 32 observed that infant reindeer were encircled at center of a “swirl” which turned to the left. The last three districts observed the same behavior with newborns. Nevertheless, the herd preferred this time to turn to the right.

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