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Mystery Helsinki runaway identified as Finnish forest reindeer

It took a week and a half to pinpoint the animal's subspecies from DNA samples.

The creature was in poor condition when it was brought to Korkeasaari Zoo's Wildlife Hospital on 8 January, but is recovering well, say zoo officials. Image: Korkeasaari Zoo

An animal that was caught after running around Helsinki in early January has been identified as a wild Finnish forest reindeer, Korkeasaari Zoo said on Thursday.

The animal was originally suspected of being a regular reindeer, a species which is semi-domesticated and herded in northern and eastern Finland. The nearest herding area is more than 600 kilometres from the capital.

It took a week and a half to pinpoint the animal's subspecies as Finnish forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus). Fragments of DNA isolated from blood samples of the animal were compared with those of captive forest reindeer at Korkeasaari and with forest reindeer sequences found in databases.

"Based on sequence data from the Finnish Museum of Natural History, we can say that this animal is a Finnish forest reindeer," said research director Petri Auvinen from the University of Helsinki's Institute of Biotechnology.

When the young individual was brought to Korkeasaari Zoo's Wildlife Hospital on 8 January, it was in a poor condition and stressed. Now, zoo wardens say it is lively and has a good appetite, so there is optimism for its survival.

The newcomer has been fed lichens and twigs, and tasted reindeer fodder as well, Korkeasaari said in a press release.

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A similar animal was photographed in late December in Asikkala. Image: Arto Hyttinen

Both domesticated reindeer and Finnish forest reindeer are rare visitors to Helsinki, especially if they have wandered to the city on their own.

Based on sightings, this animal may have strayed south from the Lake Päijänne region of south-central Finland. A similar animal was photographed in late December on the frozen lake in Asikkala, some 130 kilometres north of the capital.

Finnish forest reindeer are relatively rare and usually seen further east and north in Kainuu, Savo and North Karelia as well as in nearby Russian Karelia.

There is still clue as to why the young male ventured so far south into Finland's most densely populated area.