Another Christmas Eve, another lonely rooftop vigil for aerotarandusdynamicists around the–
What’s an “aerotarandusdynamicist”? Perhaps a recap is in order.
I have written before about the under-funded field of aerotarandusdynamics. The word, like all good scientific words, is a Latin amalgam: “aero” (air), “tarandus” (part of the scientific name for reindeer, “rangifer tarandus”) and “dynamics” (moving). Aerotarandusdynamics is the study of reindeer moving through the air: flying reindeer.
Only about a dozen of these animals are known to exist, and they’re all owned by an eccentric recluse who lives at the North Pole and refuses to make the reindeer available for study. This means aerotarandusdynamicists must content themselves with observing the creatures from a distance on December 24, the only day of the year their owner leaves his polar dwelling.
There are two theories as to how reindeer fly: the Standard Theory and the Gasbag Theory. The Standard Theory states that flying reindeer have antlers shaped rather like airplane wings, capable of producing enormous amounts of lift as the deer start to run, and flattish, paddle-shaped feet with which they “row” themselves across the sky. Gasbag Theory proponents claim their computer simulations indicate that the antlers alone cannot generate enough lift, and theorize that the reindeer also have special internal organs filled with methane (a natural by-product of ruminant digestion), making each reindeer, in effect, a lighter-than-air craft: a “reindeerigible,” the Gasbaggers call them.
To find out what avenues of research aerotarandusdynamicists would be pursuing this year, I spoke to one of the leading scientists in the field, Professor Ura Figmentov. I found him in a considerable state of excitement.
Apparently, observations made last December by one of aerotarandusdynamics’ more remote observers had just arrived at Professor Figmentov’s laboratory, in a bottle snagged by a West Coast fisherman’s net. (This is what aerotarandusdynamicists call an “in der net” posting.) These observations have set off a new round of theorizing.
“Look at this!” said Professor Figmentov. “My imagination boggles!” He waved a piece of paper on which were scrawled a few lines about the herd’s lead reindeer, “Rudolph,” containing details previously unguessed at.
Until now, aerotarandusdynamicists have theorized that Rudolph is the only male reindeer, and his conspicuous nose is gender-related, like the bright plumage of male birds. The new data indicate, however, that Rudolph may actually belong to an entirely different species. “All of the other reindeer,” reads the newly arrived field report, “used to laugh and call him names. They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.”
Many animals shun or even attack other animals that are different. An injured chicken may be pecked to death by other chickens; the runt of a litter may be bullied or even killed by his siblings. If Rudolph’s nose were simply a gender-related display, he would not have been subject to such abuse.
“Then one foggy Christmas eve,” the report goes on, “Santa came to say, ‘Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?'” Although the glowing nose may have been the reason Santa Claus (the obviously fictitious name of the reindeer’s owner) first tried Rudolph in the lead, it does not explain why Rudolph has continued in that position. Professor Figmentov believes that Rudolph also possesses navigational ability lacking in the other reindeer.
Figmentov postulates that Rudolph belongs to a separate species of flying reindeer which migrate south during the winter. Presumably, this sub-species evolved mechanisms similar to those used by birds to orient themselves during migration. One such mechanism may be a sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field.
Such a sensitivity could also explain Rudolph’s remarkable nose. Electricity and magnetism are closely related: we generate electricity by moving a conductor through a magnetic field. Although previously Rudolph’s glowing nose was thought to be due to bioluminescence, such as is found in fireflies, Figmentov now theorizes that Rudolph’s nose contains a high concentration of iron, and that as Rudolph flies through the Earth’s magnetic field at high speed, an electrical current is generated in the iron, causing it to glow red hot.
How Rudolph’s nose can contain this heat without tissue damage is unknown, but Figmentov points out that a red-hot nose could have other survival benefits in an Arctic species.
Rudolph is now apparently well-accepted by the other reindeer, according to the field report; it’s typical of social species to allow a once-shunned animal a place in the community if he can prove his worth.
Professor Figmentov hoped this year’s observations might prove his theories right. “The Standard Theory, the Gasbag Theory–we may never settle that dispute. But this is new. This could be a major breakthrough,” Figmentov shouted out with glee. “Thanks to Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, I’ll go down in history!”
He could be right.