Peary caribou and barren-ground caribou COSEWIC assessment and status report: chapter 4

Species Information

Name and classification

English name:

Peary caribou

French name:

Caribou de Peary

Inuktitut name:

Tuktu preceded by a place name, such as “kingailik tuktu” means “Prince of Wales Island caribou”



Latin name:

Rangifer tarandus pearyi J.A. Allen 1902. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 16:409.

Originally considered a separate species and later a subspecies of R. arcticus, Peary caribou are considered a subspecies of caribou, R. tarandus (Banfield 1961). Their usual habitat is confined to the Arctic islands and Boothia Peninsula. Some individuals that calve on Boothia Peninsula winter on the mainland below the Boothia Isthmus as far south as Hayes River (Gunn et al. 2000a). During environmentally forced movements, Peary caribou can make extensive movements, such as those in the 1950s to the mainland and as far west as Old Crow in the Yukon (Manning and Macpherson 1958, Banfield 1961, Youngman 1975).

Peary caribou occur as at least 4 geographically and genetically distinct populations or metapopulations: (1) Queen Elizabeth Islands; (2) Banks Island and northwestern Victoria Island; (3) Prince of Wales Island and Somerset Island, and (4) Boothia Peninsula.

The barren-ground caribou of the “Dolphin and Union herd,” are included because they were included in the previous COSEWIC assessment. They summer on Victoria Island and cross Dolphin and Union Strait to winter on the mainland. This herd is genetically distinct from both Peary caribou and other barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) and for the purpose of this report is considered separately.


Peary caribou are small (mean total length of males 1.668 m) and short, with a pointed rostrum and high cranium. The pelage is long, silky, and creamy-white in early winter, becoming shaggy and brown-tinged on the back by spring (Figure 2). The summer coat is slate above, sometimes lacking pronounced flank stripe, white below; legs, white except for narrow frontal stripe (Figure 3). The hooves are extremely short and broad. Their antler velvet is grey. The antlers are bone-coloured, often lacking lateral divergence, and digitate ("finger-like") (Banfield 1961).

Figure 2. Peary caribou male, winter/spring pelage, Queen Elizabeth Islands (photo by Frank Miller).

Figure 2.  Peary caribou male, winter/spring pelage, Queen Elizabeth Islands (photo by Frank Miller).

Figure 3. Peary caribou males in summer pelage, Prince of Wales Island (photo by Anne Gunn).

Figure 3.  Peary caribou males in summer pelage, Prince of Wales Island (photo by Anne Gunn).

Compared to other caribou, Peary caribou have a more densely haired pelage, are whiter and smaller and have shorter, furrier faces, shorter, blunter but wider hooves, and usually more narrowly spreading antlers.

Dolphin and Union caribou are smaller than barren-ground caribou but larger than Peary caribou except for the ‘super pearyi deme’ (Banfield 1961) on Prince of Wales Island. Dolphin and Union caribou have the characteristic pelage patterning of Peary caribou but are slightly darker. Their antler velvet is grey, similar to Peary caribou and in contrast to barren-ground caribou. These differences, plus other pelage, skeletal and antler differences, distinguish the Dolphin and Union caribou visually from barren-ground caribou and from most Peary caribou (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Dolphin and Union caribou, Victoria Island (Photo by Mathieu Dumond).

Figure 4.  Dolphin and Union caribou, Victoria Island (Photo by Mathieu Dumond).

Manning (1960) found that the hooves of Queen Elizabeth Island caribou were shorter and blunter than those of the other 4 groups, with no overlap in measurements between them and caribou from the mainland. The Dolphin and Union caribou had hooves just slightly narrower than the Queen Elizabeth Islands group, while the Banks Island caribou’s hooves were intermediate between those from mainland caribou and those from the Queen Elizabeth Islands.

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