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Constellation Rangifer - Cosmic Confusion

Radiant Reindeer (constellation Rangifer) 30"x 40" acrylic, charcoal and silver leaf on canvas

This is the sad story of the constellation Rangifer, who was borne of respect, and then lingered in confusion until he finally became extinct.

In April 1736, a group of scientists left France under the leadership of mathematician Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis. They were on an expedition to Lapland (the northernmost part of Finland), with the expressed purpose of determining whether the shape of the Earth was spherical or ovaloid.  They returned in 1737 with proof that Sir Isaac Newton's theory was correct.  The Earth is ovaloid - wider at the equator and flattened at the poles.  One member of that group, astronomer Pierre-Charles Le Monnier, dedicated his book La Théorie des Comètes (1743) to Maupertuis and created the constellation Le Réene in honor of the expedition.  The constellation was placed high in the Northern hemisphere and represented the reindeer that were so abundant in Lapland.

Le Monnier included this creation in his next book, Institutions Astronomiques (1776), which helped it to gain acceptance by map-makers and astronomers.  Unfortunately, in its migration from map to map, the reindeer's translated name frequently changed, and the stars of its composition became muddied.

"Rennthier" (Germanized) in Vorstellung der Gestirne by Johann Elert Bode, 1782

"Rangifer" (Latinized) in Uranographia by Johann Elert Bode, 1801

"ReinDeer" (English) by Thomas Young in A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy, 1807

"Tarandus" (species-specific - Rangifer tarandus, the caribou) by Alexander Jamieson in Celestial Atlas, 1822

According to John C. Barentine in The Lost Constellations, A History of Obsolete, Extinct, or Forgotten Star Lore (2015):

"Rangifer's undoing began when it was left out of Elijah Hinsdale Burritt’s popular Atlas Designed to Illustrate the Geography of the Heavens (1835). Burritt did show Rangifer’s stars, but he labeled the neighboring figure of Camelopardalis in a way that indicated those stars belonged to Camelopardis rather than Rangifer.  And Rangifer suffered another blow when it was left out of Friedrich Argelander’s Neue Uranometrie (1843) altogether; Argelander drew a boundary between Cassiopeia and Cepheus on his circumpolar Plate 1 to more or less evenly distribute Rangifer’s stars between them."

From that point on, the growing discrepancies in name and composition caused Rangifer to gradually fall out of favor and memory.  When it was left off of the International Astronomical Union's list of 88 recognized constellations in 1922, it became officially extinct and its stars given to neighboring constellations.


Much like the constellation, the reindeer/caribou population worldwide is rapidly declining and may become extinct. In North America, only one herd of a dozen caribou remains.  Photographer David Moskowitz created a documentary to raise awareness for the difficult situation of these magnificent creatures. 

10% of the sale of the Radiant Reindeer painting will be donated to the Conservation Northwest, an organization whose mission is to conserve and protect mountain caribou and their habitat.  From their website:

A unique ecotype of the woodland caribou subspecies (rangifer tarandus caribou), mountain caribou reside in limited numbers in interior British Columbia, western Alberta, northern Idaho and northeast Washington. Historically, they were also present in northwestern Montana and central Idaho.

Conservation Northwest is a leading organization in the fight to save the critically endangered caribou of the Inland Northwest.

Learn about the collaborative Mountain Caribou Project, an effort we’ve long been involved in with Wildsight and other partners. We’re also supporting a new effort, the Mountain Caribou Initiative, to raise awareness about these important creatures.


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