From the Collections Room (Rangifer)


I had planned to spend most of this week involved with Roanoke College’s Darwin Day festival, but the east coast snowstorm postponed that event and kept the museum closed for part of the week. With all the snow, it seems like a good time to discuss one of the most recently identified fossils in the VMNH collection, a tooth from a caribou.

Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) are an extant species of deer that currently have a circum-Arctic distribution. In North America they’re called caribou, while in Europe and Asia they’re called reindeer, but they’re generally regarded as the same species.

As might be expected, during glacial periods in the Pleistocene the range of Rangifer expanded to the south. There is one published report of Rangifer from Virginia (Ray et al., 1967) from Saltville in Smyth County. We have a number of remains from Saltville in the VMNH Paleontology collection, so I took a tray full of artiodactyl teeth upstairs to the Vertebrate Zoology Department to compare them to caribou in that collection. I found one Saltville tooth that was a good match:


The Saltville tooth is very similar to the lower right 4th premolar of a modern caribou, especially allowing for the fact that the fossil tooth is more heavily worn than the modern example (I think that’s why the enamel ridges are not an exact match). The fossil specimen is also a little bigger, but well within the range of modern caribou.

As far as I know, Saltville is the only locality in Virginia that has produced caribou, and this tooth is the only fossil caribou in the VMNH collections.


Ray, C. E., B. N. Cooper, and W. S. Benninghoff, 1967. Fossil mammals and pollen in a Late Pleistocene deposit at Saltville, Virginia. Journal of Paleontology 41:608-622.

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