We all know the song. We’ve all seen the 1964 Rankin-Bass television special. In our Western culture, we have a story of an underdog, recognized one foggy Christmas Eve for a trait that only he possessed, which saved Christmas as we know it. And thus Rudy the Red-Beaked Reindeer went down in history.
But we live in an enlightened age. We like to know why things happened, not just how. And if you listen to that story — even if you take the Bumble and such into account — there’s just too darned much that we’ve missed. Where’s the reality check, huh? Oh, you’re going to throw that Santa thing at me? Sure, okay, now you’re just being dismissive. We have to face facts, folks. There’s more to this song. Way more.
Rudolph wasn’t a hero. He was a convenient freak of nature.
Life on Earth is replete with bizarre creations that regularly defy explanation: the platypus, the mantis shrimp, the aye-aye, the naked mole rat, the blob fish, the giant weta, the goblin shark, the tardigrade, and Donald Trump’s hair, to name but a few. Despite all of these strange things that don’t really seem to possible, they’re all a result of evolution: small changes over eons that have brought about the forms we see today. (Well, except maybe Trump’s hair. The science on that thing makes quantum entanglement look easy.)
And, honestly, reindeer kind of fall into that category, too. Lest we think they’re just smaller versions of moose, reindeer (specifically Rangifer tarandus tarandus, though it could be readily argued that Santa’s "tiny" reindeer were R. t. pearyi or R. t. platyrhynchus) have some rather interesting biological traits of their own. For example, because they live in low-light conditions for a good portion of the year, reindeer can see in the ultraviolet. The ability to fly is an admittedly undocumented trait at this point, but then reindeer aren’t as closely studied as, say, pandas (and we’re pretty sure they don’t fly).
So let’s look at a specific individual. Yes, the one that the song claims was the most famous of all (yet starts by asking if you remember him; honestly, that’s like asking if you’ve ever heard of Amitabh Bachchan). Now we can assume that, protuberances aside, Rudolph was a fairly ordinary reindeer. After all, there’s no mention of any other part of his anatomy, or any psychological ticks that developed by being socially outcast by an unsympathetic and uncaring herd (and if you believe the TV special, Santa to boot).
No, Rudolph was famous for having a glowing nose, and apparently nothing else. (The ability to fly is moderately debatable, as historic records don’t outright say that the reindeer flew, only that they drove "To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!". Though there is a note that they "flew like the down of a thistle", it’s worth noting that such flight is at the discretion of the wind. But I digress...) So let’s focus on Rudy’s shnozz.
Reindeer have, by nature, a large, wet nose covered with soft hairs. There’s nothing on there that looks particularly like a light bulb. Which, really, is okay, since bioluminescence doesn’t use incandescence or plasma-based fluorescence in the way we light our homes. In nature, this is usually a result of a chemical reaction in a living organism that gives of a burst of light. The kicker here is that most of that colour tends to come in the blue-green spectrum, which is a far cry from red (there are a few fish that produce red light, but last I checked, reindeer weren’t aquatic ... though I am told that they’re better than people).
That doesn’t rule out a red nose, however. Like I said, reindeer noses are big — the full width of their snout, easily the size of a human fist, even in the smallest of reindeer subspecies. So what? Well, those noses are full of blood vessels. Ever shine a light through your hand? You bet: it’ll turn red. Now, would it be the colour of holly, as suggested by Barbara Hazen? That might be a tough one, but perhaps if Rudolph were active, which would increase blood flow, it could happen? I think a bigger question is: was Rudolph capable of producing this light on his own, or did he have an unfortunate infection of bioluminescent bacteria? (It might be possible to dismiss the latter, as that appears to be a largely marine-based scenario.)
It likely means it was the result of a luciferase reaction (I love that name), which is not naturally found in mammalian cells. So amongst an unknown subspecies of extremely fast-moving reindeer, we have a further subspecies with bioluminescence.
Is it just me, or does this sound like "Santa" is pulling an Island of Doctor Moreau, here? Maybe his herd of reindeer weren’t just looking down on Rudolph, but were miffed that he was Santa’s new favourite? Hey, it’s entirely possible that the Association of Flying Reindeers, Local 25 pressured Rankin-Bass to make Santa look bad (it’s not like he can fire them or something — really, what’s Santa gonna do without his reindeer, anyway?)
Okay, back to the honker. Rudolph supposedly had a nose bright enough to cut through even the thickest fog. Well, therein lies the real question: was it as bright as a lightbulb? The brightest known bioluminescent organism is the Pyrophorus noctilucus (appropriately named the Headlight Elater), which produces roughly 1.5 times the brightness of a heavily overcast day. That thing is a mere 30 mm in size, and the glowing part is only a portion of that. So if you throw that much brightness into something about 0.05 sq metres ... well, it would certainly be more than enough to light up a room. But a sky? The direction in which your heading? And would be it be focused light a headlight, or radiate in all directions?
It’s considered "foggy" when visibility is limited to 1,000 metres, which is quite a distance. Presumably, the fog of "that" Christmas (it’s unstated, and I frankly don’t feel like diving through historical weather records) was much, much worse. But we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt (hey, Santa’s old, how well can the old fart see?), and say that it’s a couple dozen metres.
I’ve driven in fog that thick. I was lucky to break 80 km/h (it was a 100 km/h highway) for fear of driving off the road. My headlights were more of a burden than a benefit, making the fog glow rather than showing me where I was going. Mind you, that was white-yellow light, which doesn’t penetrate as well as red light. And, in theory, you’d see better.
Except that they’re flying. And to make it around the world, they’re flying really, really, really fast. Honestly, the only reason airplanes have lights is because there’s a heap of rules that say they have to have them for visual contact with other planes. Otherwise, they’re useless. So what possible use could Rudy’s nose be once they’re airborne?
Simple: The nose was a ruse. It was obvious, so people picked on it. But that wasn’t what made Rudolph truly special. It was the fact that Rudolph had a strong magnetoreception. This isn’t fiction, folks, this stuff’s been studied for over 30 years! This is how birds migrate. Even large mammals like roe deer can sense differences in field strength, and that’s a cousin genus to reindeer. So maybe Dr. Santa Moreau went a few steps further, and mixed the gene pool a bit to increase his herd’s capabilities. Hey, stir the pot enough, and it’s possible to get a few biological oddities...
There’s also the minor issue of communication. Let’s assume, for the moment, that the reindeer and Santa are capable of surviving a trip of speeds over 1000 kilometres per second (that’s escape velocity from the Milky Way galaxy, in case you were wondering; the New Horizons probe moves at a comparatively pokey 16.26 km/s) — maybe there’s a previously unknown bow shock effect that protects them and somehow doesn’t annihilate anything nearby ... like houses — how the hell does Santa tell Rudolph + Co. where to go, or how do the reindeer tell Santa that they’ve arrived?
And, for that matter, how did Dr. Santa ever graft the right genes to make reindeer talk? And suddenly, I think we’re onto something.
The milk and cookies. It’s not a "thank you" to the man in red who comes bounding down your chimney. It’s a sacrificial offering, people! We’ve been keeping him away for centuries. I’ll bet he’s lactose and gluten intolerant. People who miss that point? Santa went all Dr. Moreau on them, and made them into his reindeer.
So if you happen to hear hooves pounce all over your rooftops tomorrow night, set a big, roaring fire, and lock your doors. You’d better watch out, you’d better not make a sound, you’d better cock your guns — I’m telling you why! — Santa Moreau is coming to town!