Photo Credit – Frans van Heerden

I have posted about reindeer before, but I felt compelled to revisit the subject because, well, the truth must be heard.

For starters, what’s the difference between reindeer and caribou? Nothing. Reindeer and caribou are the same animal. What we call them depends on location. They are called reindeer in Europe. In North America, it gets more complicated. Wild herds are called caribou, while the domesticated animals are called reindeer. Therefore, Santa’s domesticated animals are all called reindeer.

Yet here’s where it gets interesting. Based on the story of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, we have grown up thinking that Santa’s sled team is all male – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen and, of course, Rudolf. But for the record, the entire team is actually female.

Here’s why. As we know, reindeer are part of deer family. Like other members of the deer family, reindeer grow antlers. In the case of reindeer, though, BOTH males and females grow them and both shed them every year. BUT, male reindeer shed their antlers every November. Females, on the other hand, don’t shed theirs until calves are born – in May. All of the reindeer on Santa’s sled team still have their antlers at Christmastime, and therefore, they all must be female!

Like so many things in our past, it seems as though history needs to be rewritten. In the meantime, should you come across a reindeer with antlers in the coming weeks, say hello to HER.

Sunsets and Solstices

We are fast approaching the winter solstice and the day with least amount of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere. The solstice officially marks the beginning of winter, though many places have felt the bite of winter for weeks. After December 21, the sun will reach a little higher in the sky each day and daylight minutes will increase.

It would make sense, then, that the earliest sunset of the year is on or near the 21st. But it’s not! In fact, the earliest sunsets of the year happen about two weeks before the solstice (for most of the US) after which sunsets start occur later and later in the afternoon. However, sunrises are later in the morning leading up to the solstice, thus the decreasing amount of sunlight each day. In addition, the latest sunrise also does not occur on the solstice, but you guessed it, a couple weeks after (around January 3).

Why don’t they line up? The answer has to do with Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun. Because of this, Earth moves faster around the sun at different times of the year. We travel faster in our winter months than in the summer months. As a result, sunsets get ahead of “schedule.” That schedule, though, is human made creating a discrepancy between anthropogenic clocks and the sun. On average, a “day” is 24 hours. But the time between solar noon one day (the point at which the sun reaches its highest point in the sky) and solar noon the next day is rarely 24 hours. In fact, the solar day is actually longer than 24 hours near both the summer and winter solstices, and shorter than 24 hours near the equinoxes. It translates this way – because solar noon occurs later each day, sunsets are also later. Anyone wanting a more details can click here or here.

Another fun solstice fact – the latest sunset in the summer is actually a couple weeks after the summer solstice!


Here’s a thought for you – algae as the next big food source. The first reaction to that might be similar to one you’d have if I mentioned cricket powder as a source of protein. Yet an ever-increasing world population (estimated to top 10 billion by 2050) coupled with climate change might force our hand. And while algae might not sound all that appealing, it does have its benefits.

Giant Kelp, Photo Credit – Monterrey Bay Aquarium

There are nearly a million species of algae some of which include the clumps you might find floating on a stagnant pond. Some are considered micro-algae such as phytoplankton, which is the base of the marine food chain. But there is also macro-algae that includes kelp and seaweed.

Growing algae does not require cultivating additional land. Nor does it require freshwater to water them, or fertilizer. It grows much faster than terrestrial plants – some species of kelp grow as much as 2-3 feet per day! If that’s not enough to convince you, consider that seaweed does a remarkable job at sequestering carbon – quite the opposite of our current agriculture industry. Research has also shown that seaweed farms greatly improve water quality.

Asian countries have cultivated seaweed for thousands of years. Not only is it a great source of protein, it also has five times the amount of calcium than milk. Algae also contains fiber and micronutrients such as iron, and it is full of vitamins. Today, the both the micro and macro-algae farming industries are thriving and expanding.

Perhaps this sustainable, nutritious crop will be the wave of the future (ha ha)!

Fire-Starting Birds

Photo Credit – Vivek Joshi

Anyone who has observed or read about birds knows that they are highly intelligent. Corvids and parrots are among the most intelligent, able to solve complex puzzles and use tools. Other bird species have their strengths too. Among them are black kites, brown falcons, and whistling kites. They live in Australia’s tropical savanna and use fire as a tool. They are aptly nicknamed firehawks.

These birds are often found on the edges of wildfires having a feast as insects and small animals try to flee from the blaze. Not only that, people have observed these birds carrying burning sticks in their talons or beaks to different unburned patches of dry grass and dropping them to start a new fire. As the fire grows, the birds wait for the panic of their prey and then the feeding frenzy begins. After an area burns, the birds move on to a new area.

Aboriginal people have observed this behavior for thousands of years. And while it is well documented that these birds take advantage of fires for finding food, some people do question whether the birds are intentionally setting the fires. Scientific data and documentation are lacking. More scientific research is underway, but my money’s on the birds.