Could Rudolph Be Real? Reindeers Can Have Red Noses Due To Densely Packed Blood Vessels [VIDEO]

By Ajit Jha on December 24, 2013 10:43 AM EST

This thermal image made by researchers at Lund University shows why reindeers may actually have "red" noses. (Photo: Lund University)

The character of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer originated in story written by Robert L. May in 1939. In it, a young reindeer was teased mercilessly for his glowing nose — until Santa realized he could be a key member of his sleigh team. Since then, Rudolph has become a key element of Christmas mythology, and no matter where he shows up, he invariably has a red nose.

Now researchers in Sweden claim that the mythical reindeer's nose color is possibly based on scientific fact. The researchers used thermal imaging cameras to measure heat emitted by reindeers from different parts of their body. Reindeers' bodies are well insulated with a coat of fur on their bodies, so most of their body appears relatively dark in thermal imaging. However, the images show their noses glowing bright orange. This indicates the large amount of heat released by their nose. With densely packed blood vessels in their nose and lips, they remain warm and sensitive while searching for food in the icy terrain, according to researchers.

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Their snouts, according to Dr. Ronald Kröger, a zoologist at Lund University in Sweden (and lead author of the study), can sometimes even take on a reddish color in the cold. The mules are exposed to very low temperatures while the reindeers feed under the snow and they need to be sensitive to what they actually eat, according to Ronald Kroger. "They pump warm blood into the mule which means it can be a bit reddish because of this strong blood flow. The thermographic cameras show the heat coming from their body. The eyes and the mule are lighter and warmer than the rest of the body," Kroeger said. The "mule" is another term for snout.

There are things about animal physiology not directly perceptible to the human eye. Kröger's study is an attempt to explore these unknown aspects of the animal's physiology. The puzzle with noses doesn't end up with reindeers. "Dogs," for instance, "are the exact opposite to the reindeer," Kröger said. He now wants to study why dogs' "noses are cold and why they have evolved that way."

Earlier, researchers from Norway and the Netherlands had conducted a similar study with the conclusion that "the nasal microcirculation of reindeer is richly vascularized, with a vascular density 25 percent higher than that in humans. These results highlight the intrinsic physiological properties of Rudolph's legendary luminous red nose." In other words, the findings in the earlier study and the current one are nearly the same.

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