Deer are some of the most interesting, adaptable, and essential mammals in the world. People have relied on deer for millennia as a source of food and resources. Deer live on 5 of the 7 continents and in every habitat imaginable.
The word deer describes many different types of animals. Before we talk about the fantastic and unique deer species, it’s best to understand exactly what a deer is.
What is a Deer?
The word “deer” locally refers to hoofed mammals in a region. Some people might use the term to talk about an animal others don’t consider a deer. Deer can be found all the way from North America to the jungles of Asia.
True deer are hoofed mammals belonging to the scientific family of Cervidae. They also belong to a group called the “ungulates.”
Ungulate is a word that refers to large mammals that have hooves for feet.
True deer can range in size from the height of a small dog to larger than a car. Most deer species have antlers on top of their head, though some may have vampire-like fangs.
All deer are strict herbivores, feeding only on plants. The deer themselves are a valuable source of food for large predators like wolves species, bears, and big cats.
Most deer shed their antlers each year and regrow them. The dropped antlers are called sheds. Some deer don’t lose their antlers and are referred to as stags. This is usually due to abnormal testosterone production. Injuries or deformities are usually the cause behind this.
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10 Common Species of Deer Around The World
Deer can be found on every continent except for Australia and Antarctica. Here are 10 of the most interesting and common species of deer around the world.
1. Axis Deer (Axis axis)
Axis deer also go by the name chital deer or spotted deer. They’re native to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Bangladesh.
Axis deer are prized trophy hunting deer and are imported around the world. Hunting ranches in Texas are the largest importer.
An average adult axis deer stands 37 inches (95 cm) at the shoulder and weighs between 165 to 220 pounds (75-100 kg).
Their antlers can grow to around 30 inches (76 cm) in length and usually have three tines on each antler.
Axis deer tend to have rich brown fur with white spots along their body and a black stripe on their spine. Their throat and undersides are generally white.
2. Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis)
Male Chinese water deer are the only deer that don’t grow antlers as they reach maturity. Instead, they grow long canine teeth that make them look like vampires.
These spooky-looking deer are native to China and Korea. They prefer to spend most of their time around rivers.
An average adult Chinese water deer stands 18 to 21 inches (45-55 cm) at the shoulder. They can weigh anywhere between 17 to 30 pounds (8-14 kg).
Water deer usually have dark gray or light brown coats. In the winter, the coat gets thicker and more scruffy.
3. Elk (Cervus canadensis)
Although elk are usually considered different animals, they’re actually the second-largest deer species. Elk also go by the name “Wapiti,” which comes from a Cree and Shawnee word.
An adult Roosevelt elk can weigh as much as 1100 pounds (500 kg) and stand up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) at the shoulder.
Elk have a reddish-brown or copper-colored coat in the warmer months. In colder months, they develop a lighter tan coat. Their antlers can grow to four feet (121 cm) in length.
They’re native to North America and have a few subspecies. However, European colonization of North America almost wiped them out. Only recently have elk moved back east of the Mississippi River.
While elk prefer woodlands and forests, they can also do well in mountains and swamps.
4. Fallow Deer (Dama dama)
Fallow deer are native to the European continent. They’re most commonly found in the open clearings of dense woodlands and forests.
An average adult fallow deer stands 30 to 40 inches (80-110 cm) at the shoulder. It can weigh between 55 and 280 pounds (25-130 kg).
Fallow deer have distinctive markings that help them stand out from other deer. They’re primarily creamy brown with white spots all along their bodies.
The antlers of fallow deer are broad and flat, giving them a unique appearance. They can grow up to 27.5 inches (70 cm) in length.
5. Marsh Deer (Blastocerus dichotomus)
Marsh deer are the largest deer species in South America. As the name suggests, they prefer wet habitats in the rainforest, river bottoms, and swamps. Today, you can find them in Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina.
An average adult marsh deer stands 40 to 45 inches (100 to 115 cm) tall at the shoulder. They can weigh between 220 and 260 pounds (100-120 kg).
Marsh deer have shaggy, reddish coats of fur. Their legs are often a dark black or brown color, and their coat darkens in the winter.
Because of their swampy environments, marsh deer have unique hooves. They are especially wide and flat, which helps keep them from sinking into muddy ground. Their hooves also have a webbing between the toes that increases their surface area.
Marsh deer antlers can have around ten to twelve tines. Their antlers can grow to 23 inches (60 cm) in length. Because they’re a tropical species, they don’t shed their antlers seasonally. In fact, they sometimes keep their antlers for up to two years.
6. Moose (Alces alces)
Moose are the largest species of deer in the world. They’re native to the colder regions of North America, primarily in Canada and Alaska. Subspecies of moose can also be found in the cold forests of Europe and Asia, where they’re called elk.
An average adult moose will stand between 5 and 7 feet (152-213 cm) at the shoulder. They can weigh anywhere from 550 to 1800 lbs (250-600 kg).
Moose are easily recognized, thanks to their massive size, humped back, and huge head. They tend to have a thick brown fur coat with a darker mane on the chest and shoulders.
Generally, moose are found in the thick frozen forests of the far north. They can adapt to marshland and often swim to feed on aquatic vegetation. This has made them the surprising prey of killer whales.
Moose have the largest and heaviest antlers of any deer. They can grow to lengths of 6 feet (1.8 m) and grow horizontally from their head. The antlers have large flat areas with many tines.
7. Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus)
Mule deer are native to the western regions of North America. This species can be broken down into two subspecies of black-tailed deer. They’re also related to white-tailed deer.
An average adult mule deer will stand between 35 to 41 inches (90-105 cm) at the shoulder. They can weigh anywhere between 110 to 475 pounds (50-215 kg).
Mule deer get their name from their large ears resembling a mule’s ears. They have grayish coats of fur that darken in the winter. The top of their head is much darker than the body, forming a V-shaped marking.
Generally, mule deer prefer open, dry habitats. Arid grasslands, mountains, and deserts are all common places to find mule deer. They’re incredibly adaptable and can be found in dense woodlands and wet environments.
The antlers of a mule deer can grow up to 31 inches (78 cm) in length and stretch over three feet (1 m) in width. They usually have four tines on each antler but may have fewer.
8. Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)
Red deer are some of the largest deer in the world, right behind moose and elk. They also have one of the largest ranges. They can be found throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Northwestern Africa.
They’re the only species of deer that can be found in Africa.
Red deer are closely related to elk but elk are much bigger. Europeans called elk in North America “wapiti” because of the close resemblance. It was once debated whether they were the same species. But in 2004, a DNA test determined red deer and elk were two distinct species of deer.
Adult red deer stand about 47 inches (120 cm) at the shoulder and weigh anywhere between 220 to 770 pounds (100-350 kg).
Red deer are known for their shiny reddish coat of fur. They also tend to have a darker and fluffier patch of fur on their chests.
While they have a massive native range, red deer prefer open woodlands and forests. They can also be found in mountain ranges, feeding above the treeline.
Some red deer have adapted to semi-desert mountainous regions. One example is the Atlas Mountains of northern Africa. The red deer in Scotland are primarily found on open moorland.
9. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)
Reindeer are one of the best-known species of deer. This is thanks to the fact they help Santa Claus deliver presents every Christmas Eve. They’re native to the frigid regions of North America, Europe, and Siberia.
Reindeer and caribou are the same species. In Europe, they are called reindeer. In North America, only wild reindeer are called caribou.
An average adult reindeer stands between 32 to 47 inches (82-120 cm) tall at the shoulder. They can weigh between 80 to 330 pounds (40-150 kg).
Reindeer have tiny ears and tails to help prevent heat loss in their cold environment. They have an extremely thick coat of fur that tends to be grayish or white, with dark legs and a dark muzzle.
Reindeer primarily inhabit the far northern hemisphere. They’re found in arctic, subarctic, boreal forests, and mountainous regions. They can either be migratory or stay in one place. This depends on the herd they belong to and their geographic location.
Female reindeer are the only deer species with antlers. It’s theorized that the antlers help them find food underneath the snow and ice. Reindeer antlers are distinctive thanks to their backward-facing tines and furry appearance.
10. White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
Other than reindeer, white-tailed deer may be the most famous deer species. This is because of their prolific status in the hunting community. They’re also known for their role in the Disney film Bambi.
White-tailed deer can be found throughout North, Central, and South America. They have also been imported around the world to hunting ranches.
An average white-tailed deer stands between 35 and 41 inches (90-105 cm) tall at the shoulder. They can weigh anywhere between 110 to 250 pounds (50-115 kg).
They can vary quite a bit in size, depending on their region. Larger white-tailed deer are usually found in northern areas. Meanwhile, the smallest deer are in the south.
White-tailed deer get their name from the distinctive white spot on their rump. They can also have white patches on their throat and undersides. The majority of their coat is usually gray or brown in color.
While they are woodland deer, white-tailed deer can adapt to various environments. Today, they’re found in neighborhoods and around farms. This has led them to sometimes become pest animals.
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Deer Hunting and the Relationship Between Humans & Deer
The relationship between deer and humans goes all the way back to our early ancestors. Deer were one of the large mammals that early hunter-gatherers relied on as a food source. You could say that hunting deer is a deep part of our heritage.
Even today, deer and humans are inseparable. As people expand into their natural habitat, our species’ interactions become more common.
Deer Hunting in the Past
Deer populations have provided an important food source for humans throughout our history. Early groups of people used to migrate with herds of large mammals throughout the year.
Deer are a reliable source of resources for subsistence hunters. Their meat is an excellent source of food. Their hides can be used for shelter and clothing. Even their bones and sinews can be made into tools.
Without deer hunting, humans would have likely evolved differently.
For some groups, deer meat was their primary food source in a harsh environment. In the Arctic regions, indigenous groups relied on animals like caribou and seal for food. Many of these groups still rely on migrating herds for much of their diet.
In medieval times, hunting was a right reserved only for royalty and landowners. Instead of relying on hunting for food, it was seen as a kind of entertainment.
During the Middle Age, landowners in Europe once employed gamekeepers. This is to ensure plenty of game and fish on their land.
Gamekeepers helped create an environment that attracted animals and guided nobility on hunts. They were also responsible for sourcing game meats and catching poachers.
For peasants, deer hunting at the time became a dangerous game. Many needed to hunt to supplement their diets and avoid starvation. However, hunting was illegal for them, as all game on a lord’s land was the lord’s property.
Poachers faced extreme penalties but often had to hunt to feed their families. This created quite a bit of conflict between the ruling and peasant classes.
Deer hunting was an unregulated activity for a long time. As technology advanced and made hunting more efficient, deer populations suffered.
In earlier times, elk were nearly wiped out in North America by European settlers. By the end of the 1800s, elk were eradicated from the eastern half of the United States. They have since rebounded around the country.
Deer Hunting Today
As of 2020, there were 11.4 million registered deer hunters in the United States alone. Deer hunting is an essential sport for human tradition and deer.
Each state government sets regulations for deer hunting within its territory. The state also employs biologists in its Fish and Wildlife Department. They track deer populations and collect data from hunters.
Regulations are set based on the following factors:
- Number of hunters
- Deer breeding seasons
- Population numbers for each species.
Hunting windows and laws can vary by county within each state.
The cost of hunting licenses is what funds the state wildlife departments. While hunters might kill deer each year, they also support their conservation.
Hunters in the US target white-tailed deer, mule deer, and axis deer. These species have the least regulations. This is because they have the largest and most stable populations.
Hunting can be seen as controversial by many people.
While this is understandable, hunting is an integral part of our history. Most importantly, hunting can be done safely and ethically.
However, incompetent hunters and over-harvesting can still have major impacts on deer populations. But these issues are rare and tend to be few and far between.
Deer are imported around the world to hunting ranches for sport hunters. Texas is famous for exotic animal hunts and for importing animals from around the world. These ranches are massive plots of land where animals are set loose to be hunted at a later date. It very much resembles medieval European hunts.
While the land may be fenced in, most ranches are hundreds or thousands of acres. They’re easily large enough to support herds of deer on their own and frequently do attract wild deer.
For many, it’s a much simpler way to hunt.
Human Impact on Deer Populations
The interactions between humans and deer may seem one-sided in favor of people. While people have benefited from using deer as a resource, some deer have benefited too.
In North America, forests are routinely cleared for wood and to make space for farms. This has greatly benefited white-tailed deer who thrive in open woodland environments.
White-tailed deer are also very loyal to their territory. They don’t leave just because people move in. Since they can quickly adapt to a new environment, it allows them to stay on farms or neighborhoods.
Roads and housing can be an issue for all species of deer. Deer cause around 1.5 million vehicle accidents each year. Thousands of people are injured in these crashes and millions of dollars in damages are done.
Deer readily cross roads and walk through neighborhoods to find food. They can get used to people being around pretty quickly, though most will still avoid people.
Throughout history, people have had a major impact on deer populations. In some areas, they’ve been hunted to the brink of extinction. In others, deer have adapted to the presence of people and have thrived because of human actions.
Elk in particular made a huge resurgence in Yellowstone National Park. This is because humans killed off all their natural predators. We’ll go more in-depth on this in our next section.
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Deer species face many environmental risks. However, they can also be the cause of some environmental disasters.
Naturally, deer face some pressure from humans hunting them. But other environmental factors can have a larger impact on their populations. Pollution, urban expansion, and agricultural development are the largest threats to deer.
Like other animals, deer need natural areas to be clean. Water source pollution can be very problematic for deer. This is especially problematic in arid environments with few water sources.
Deer also aren’t immune to plastic pollution and runoff of pesticides like DDT. DDT is short for dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, an agricultural insecticide.
Urban expansion is one of the biggest contributing factors to deer population decline. As stated above, deer don’t leave an area just because people move in. This causes them to be hit by cars often. It also leads to them being hunted out of an area as a nuisance species.
Agricultural development can both harm and help deer populations. It clears much of their natural habitat but provides a viable food source for much of the year. The real impact of farming activity depends on the species of deer. White-tailed deer do extremely well around humans, but elk and moose do not.
Elks in Yellowstone
Deer are capable of being an environmental risk as well. Remember when we mentioned the elk in Yellowstone National Park? They almost caused an ecological collapse in the region.
Back then, people moved to Yellowstone for farming and ranching. When they arrived, there were large predators of all kinds. Large bears, mountain lions, and especially wolves.
To protect their livestock, ranchers hunted down most of these large predators. Without the wolves in Yellowstone, elk populations exploded. They no longer had a natural predator to keep their population in check.
As the number of elk grew, they needed more food than the area could give them. Overgrazed grass died off and tree saplings didn’t have the chance to grow tall. Major erosion events took place. This rerouted rivers and made the area uninhabitable for other animals like beavers.
Because there were so many elk in the area, the entire ecosystem began to collapse. This led to the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. There was also a large culling by people to reduce elk population numbers.
Deer aren’t immune to threats like overhunting, climate change, or urban expansion. But, they are very adaptable and hardy. Very few deer species are threatened with extinction. In fact, today’s deer populations are lower than they were a few hundred years ago.
Thankfully, deer don’t have much to worry about as a species when it comes to their future.