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What powers Santa’s sleigh?

So, on Saturday evening, Santa will fire up the reindeer and set off around the globe once again. In fact, you can track his flight. But how do those reindeer fly, it could all be to do with Christmas Spirit, but it’s long been suggested there’s a slightly more pharmacological explanation

On a mushroom hunt a few years ago I learnt how to identify some common, edible mushrooms, and to spot some poisonous ones as well. One of the most well known is fly agaric, or Amanita muscaria. The name comes from its use as a fly poison, but for bigger animals like reindeer its not so much poisonous as fun. In fact, I was told that upon smelling a crushed mushroom, reindeer will come from miles around to eat some. Why? Because of the psychoactive compounds the mushrooms contain.

The psychoactive compounds in fly agaric include, muscarine, which mimics the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and the two related compounds ibotenic acid (below) and muscimol (bottom), that mimic glutamic acid and GABA respectively.



Now, the story goes that it’s not just reindeer that like to get high from the mushrooms, but also the locals. Sometimes they eat it, and sometimes they use the reindeer as a filter, drinking the urine, which obviously contains a lower does of the psychoactive compounds, as well as their metabolites. So could this be where the story of flying reindeer comes from – tripping ruminants?

Whatever your opinion, it’s at least a salutary lesson in making sure you identify your mushrooms properly, so you avoid any unwelcome side effects. Or at least, talk to Frank.

Laura Howes

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