Why This Reindeer Looks Like It Has a Lightsaber Hat

Pictured above is a reindeer, and as you can see, it has a very shiny pair of antlers. You could even say it glows.

And reindeer antlers — they don’t typically glow, in case you thought otherwise. And if they do, that’s probably a bad thing; there aren’t a lot of naturally occurring reasons why this would happen. Antlers are made of bone with “velvet,” which the American Museum of Natural History describes as “a thin, soft layer of skin and blood vessels that gets scraped off the antler over time,” and there’s nothing on that list would cause the antlers to gain bioluminescence. But don’t worry, there’s a good reason why this is happening, and the glowing antlers may even save the reindeer’s life.

That’s because the glow helps prevent car accidents. Well, maybe.

Reindeer are common throughout much of Finland; according to NPR, “about 5.5 million pounds of reindeer meat is produced in the country each year” as of 2014, produced by “more than 7,000 reindeer herders in the country.” But unfortunately for the reindeer and their herders, cars are also pretty common — and that’s a fatal combination. As the BBC reported in 2014, “as many as 4,000 reindeer die in traffic accidents every year in Finland, the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute says. Most incidents occur in the dark months of November and December, when roads are prone to becoming icy,” and darkness also contributes to the crashes. The reindeer don’t know they’re crossing streets — they’re reindeer, after all — and the drivers can’t see the creatures until it’s too late. Beyond the death toll among the animal population, these accidents lead to hundreds of severely-damaged cars and an unreported number of injuries to drivers and their passengers. 

So it only makes sense that the Finland’s Reindeer Herders’ Association wanted to reduce the number of accidents. The instituted a lot of common sense changes; for example, per NPR, ” the Herders’ Association has built a 1,200-mile-long fence on the borders of the animals’ grazing lands,” but that has its limits: “it’s not possible to keep all of the 200,000 or so reindeer that the herders’ care for from crossing highways.” Out-of-the-box ideas are also piloted on a regular basis. And that’s why the picture above exists. As Smithsonian explains, the idea was simple: herders decided to “spray the antlers of reindeer with reflective paint that reflects motorists’ headlights.”  The result: reindeer that look like that have lightsabers coming out of their heads. 

Unfortunately, the result doesn’t include fewer reindeer deaths. As the AP reported n 2016, “Finnish reindeer herders in the Arctic have painted Rudolph’s antlers in fluorescent colors, hung reflectors around their necks and even used movable traffic signs, but none of the efforts have helped reduce the annual 4,000 reindeer road deaths.” So if you’re hoping to find a glowing reindeer in the wild, you’re out of luck — the herders no longer paint their animals. 

Bonus fact: If you’re driving at night and you notice that your left headlight (if you’re in the U.S.) is not nearly as bright as the right one, don’t worry; that’s by design. Your regular headlights are designed asymmetrically; the left bulb doesn’t emit as much light in an effort to not blind oncoming drivers. (Wikipedia has a useful image, here, showing the effect.) High beams, though — as they’re only supposed to only be used when there is no oncoming traffic — are often symmetrical. 

From the Archives: Rudolph the Red Knows Undersea Warfare, Dear: A reindeer story.