Prof. Dominy says Rudolph at risk for hypothermia.

Dartmouth Prof Explains Rudolph's Nose

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Lee Michaelides

Plus a new biography of the most famous reindeer of all.

Rain and snow are forecast for Christmas Eve, so there's a good chance of a foggy night in the Upper Valley. And everyone knows what that means.

This Christmas, however, you can learn the science behind the story.  Dartmouth anthropology professor Nathaniel Dominy published an academic paper called  "The scientific benefits of Rudolph's red nose" using source material found in the Rauner Special Collections Library. (Though the librarians won't say so, Rauner arguably houses the world's largest collection of Rudolph-related stuff, because the man who wrote the original Rudolph story, Robert May, graduated from Dartmouth in 1926. Over the decades May and his family gave the library copies of nearly every Rudolph licensed product the family approved—coffee mugs, books, records, comics, figurines.)

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But let's get back to the science of the nose. Dominy's paper is different from the typical hard-to-understand academic paper. It was published by Frontiers for Young Minds, a science journal for kids. This paper is the real deal—sans academic jargon. It has 14 footnotes and an official academic citation: Dominy N (2015) Reindeer Vision Explains the Benefits of a Glowing Nose. Front Young Minds. 3:18. doi. ItRead the paper's abstract reprinted below and amaze your children and grandchildren with your cutting edge knowledge of Santa science. 

ABSTRACT: Arctic reindeer have unusual eyes and vision. In contrast to most mammals, reindeer can see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to us. They also have a reflective tissue in the eye that changes from a golden color during the summer months to a deep blue color during the winter months. Together, these special traits help reindeer see plant foods or predators in the snow, especially during the winter, when daylight in the Arctic is dim and purplish. A problem with being able to see purples and blues really well is that these colors are practically invisible in fog. Red light travels best in fog, and it follows that reindeer, more than other mammals, would benefit from a nose that produces red light. At least one reindeer is reported to have a luminescent (glowing) nose that operates well under foggy conditions. The goal of this paper is to estimate the redness of this nose and to explore its advantages and disadvantages.

The noses of reindeer have a complex system of many tiny blood vessels and are therefore quite warm a trait that not only prevents reindeer noses from freezing but also causes heat from a reindeer’s body to be lost to the surrounding air. If too much heat is lost from his glowing nose, Rudolph could risk hypothermia (a dangerously low body temperature) under extremely cold weather conditions. It is therefore extremely important for children to provide high-calorie foods to help Rudolph maintain his body temperature on Christmas Eve.

There's also a new Upper Valley connection to Santa. This year Lebanon-based University Press of New England advanced the field of Santa Studies by publishing the definitive Rudolph biography—Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: An American Hero by Ronald Lankford, Jr.  Be forewarned. At  177 pages in length and 300 footnotes, this is a book for serious Santa scholars.


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