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Deer Biology

In order to understand how to do a better job managing our deer herd, it is important to learn more about the animals we are trying to help, and what makes them so unique within the animal kingdom. Those species that are from the same genetic branch in the taxonomy chart, share a greater number of genetic and physiological traits than members from other families. It follows that management techniques of species within the same subfamily will be more alike than those from different Subfamilies. Worldwide there are 34 different species of deer that occupy a broad range of habitat.
Fossil records show that the "Irish Elk" (Megaloceros) and the "Stag-Moose" (Cervalces) grew the largest antlers ever produced by any deer species.
Irish Elk Irish Elk Skelton Stag Moose
I Cervidae: Taxonomy/ Classification
All deer belong to the "Suborder", Ruminantia. This is an important point, since their nutritional requirements are unique in the animal world.
For the sake of this discussion, we will discuss only the species that are widely hunted and farmed world wide. It is not meant to be a complete discussion of all deer species!
Ruminantia   Order
Cervidae Four Sub-Families Family
1. Odocoileinae 2. Cervinae 3. Hydropotinae < subfamily
aka True Deer 4. Muntiacinae
New World Deer Old World Deer  
a. White-tailed deer a. North American Elk  
Odocoileus Virginianus Cervus Canadensis  
b. Mule deer b. European Red Deer  
Odocoileus Hemionus Cervus Elaphus  
c. Moose c. Asian Red Deer  
Alces Alces Cervus Affinis  
d. Reindeer & Caribou d. Sika Deer  
Rangifer Tarandus Cervus Nippon  
e. Siberian Roe Deer A. Axis Deer  
Capreolus Pygargus
Axis Axis
f. European Roe Deer a. Fallow Deer  
Capreolus Papreolus Dama Dama  
  b. Persian Fallow  
  Dama Mesopotamica  

True deer can be further subdivided into 3 main Genus's:
1. Cervus: elk, red deer, and sika deer.
2. Axis: axis deer
3. Dama: fallow deer
We now must examine what are the distinguishing characteristics of each deer species within the context of their larger, broader classification. As we mentioned, deer belong to a larger group classification called "Ruminantia"; a suborder. ALL Ruminantia belong to a more general classification we all know as: "Herbivores" which means they get 100% of their energy from eating Plants. They naturally eat nothing else! (remember this fact when designing a nutritional program!!) Examples of Ruminantia include deer, cattle, goats, bison, sheep, antelope, and buffalo.
Anatomical features are similar among all ruminants. All ruminants have:
- Hooves
- Even number of toes
- Specialized teeth for grinding called Hypsodont teeth.
- 2 step digestion process
- Stomach with 4 chambers
In addition, modern cervids generally have;
- Deciduous antlers - ( ## )
- Males only (exception is raingifer)
- Relatively long legs
- No "gall bladder" (exception musk deer)
- All have facial glands (exception musk deer)

II. Major economic species: General information
1.Whitetail Deer
Whitetail deer derive their name from the long, distinctive white tail that is used in intra-species communication such as alarm. Male whitetails are called bucks; females are called does and the young are called fawns.
Whitetail fawns are spotted at birth, and gradually loose their spots as fall approaches. Adult whitetails color is a reddish brown in the summer which is usually thinner (1/4 inch). A thick (1 inch) dark, drab grey winter coat, starts developing late August- September, and contains long guard hairs and a short under fur. In general, whitetail coat color tends to be "lighter or paler" in the drier regions of the south and south west, and darker in the humid portions of the eastern USA. There is a seasonal molt, which signifies the transition between the two coat color phases. By continuing to shed and re-grow seasonal coats, a substantial amount of energy and protein is required! Piebald's and true albinos are becoming more popular with scientific breeders thoughtout North America. Whitetails can live up to 20 years of age in the right conditions.
True to Bergmann's Rule, whitetail body size has a definite "north to south" length and weight correlation; with the largest bodies coming from the northern latitudes. Body length varies widely; from 8 feet or more (borealis sub-species) to 6 feet in Texas; to less than 5 feet long (clavium sub-species) in areas of southern Florida! Mature northern bucks can stand over 40 inches high at the shoulder; while some subspecies less than 28 inches tall at the shoulder. Live weight is equally variable, and generally latitude/subspecies dependent. Within any sub-species, an adult doe normally weighs 60 -75% of an adult buck's live weight, if she is not pregnant. The largest northern bucks can weigh 250 to over 300 lbs live-weight. There are reports of scientific breeder-bucks approaching the 400 lb live-weight figure! 125-200 lbs live weight is more typical of the bucks harvested nationwide, with the lightest Florida Keys subspecies weighing about 50 lbs live weight!!

Whitetails usually mate in their second year in colder climates and can sometimes mate in their first year in warmer southern climates. Does usually come into heat in early November in the north, and remain in heat for about 24 hours. If she is not bred, a second heat cycle occurs around 28 days later. Estrous cycles can occur well into January in some parts of the south. Gestation generally lasts 200 days, and a single fawn is normal in the doe's first birth. In subsequent births, 2-3 fawns are not uncommon. Buck newborn fawns are larger than doe fawns, with average weights for bucks about 4-12 lbs and does in the 3-7 lb range.
Newborn fawns are subject to predation, and the doe immediately licks the fawn clean, in order to protect it from detection by predators. Healthy fawns nurse immediately; usually 2-3 times a day. During the first 24-36 hours of life, the Colostrum in the does milk provides essential anti-bodies to help fight off disease, until the fawn's own immune system kicks in. Doe milk is far richer in protein, fat, energy, Vitamin A and dry solids than cow's milk. Fat and vitamin A levels decrease quickly in early lactation. Surprisingly, the quality of milk in a starving doe does NOT decrease much; but the quantity of milk production does. Fawns double their birth weight in the first two weeks, and triple it in the first month. Fawns are able to walk soon after birth, and are often seen grazing with the doe after they are only one month old. Fawn rumination begins at about 2 weeks, and by 10 weeks of age most fawns are completely weaned.
Communication among whitetails is important for feeding, safety, breeding and other survival necessities:
1. Visual
a. Tail high - alarm
b. Tail twitch - safe
c. Body posture - corresponds to social position
1. Head high = Rear-up and flail with legs
2. Head low = Confront and chase an individual.
3. No eye contact = Subordinate individual
4. Direct stare/ears laid back= dominant deer; willingness to fight
5. Stiff legged-ears pinned back- back hair raised = fight to come!
2. Vocal / sound
a. Snort - an alarm signal that is usually accompanied by a stomping of the hoof.
b. Bawl - extreme distress of some sort.
c. Intimidation grunt - to reaffirm social dominance of either sex.
d. Tending grunt - by bucks tending potential breeding partners.
e. Maternal grunt - doe to fawn communication.
f. Bleat - fawn to doe communication
3. Scent
    Whitetail deer also use their keen sense of smell to help them communicate. There are 4 "main" pairs of these external glands, that can communicate a deer's sex, breeding cycle status, social position, and overall health to other members of the local herd. They are:
1. Interdigital Gland - Is found between all 4 of a deer's hoofs. The interdigital gland leaves a scent trail that other deer can easily follow.
2. Tarsal Gland - In found on the inside of the 2 hind legs. This important gland is a patch of long hairs, with a large area of glands under the skin. The gland secretes a Fatty-lipid that sticks to the long hairs of the tarsal gland, and gives off a strong, musky smell when mixed with urine during "Rub-urination behavior"
3. Pre-orbital Gland - Found in small pockets of the corners of the eyes. They are similar to tear glands, and are often rubbed on overhanging branches.
4. Metatarsal Gland - Found on the outside of the hind legs, but closer to the ground than the tarsal gland. Metatarsal glands are thought to have a role in regulating a deer's body temperature.
There are also 3 "less understood" external glands:
1. Forehead Gland - Found in the area between the eyes and the antlers.
2. Preputial Gland - Found in the penis sheath.
3. Nasal Gland - Found inside the nose.
Note: This picture is from the MO DNR website
Feeding behavior and digestive tract physiology of all deer species are indeed closely related! The feeds normally consumed by cervids species are also the feeds they are best capable of digesting!
Whitetails are called Concentrate Selectors because they "select" the more nutritious, low fiber parts of vegetation, like leaves, fruit, and shoots. This material is rapidly fermented in the rumen / reticulum; while a large portion of the plant "Cell Contents" (sugars & soluble starch) is absorbed directly; without any fermentation at all! Whitetails have stomach antimony adapted to utilize low fiber forage. Their reticular groove is well developed which allows high quality feed to bypass rumen fermentation. All concentrate selectors have a relatively small rumen and omasum; which can get impacted easily with poor quality, fibrous forage.
Concentrate selectors like whitetails have faster feed "passage rates", relatively larger distal fermentation chambers (relatively larger hindguts) with greater emphasis on "hind gut fermentation" and less emphasis on "ruminal fermentation". Whitetails have a relatively large Parotid Gland which secretes compounds that make it possible for them to eat high levels of some secondary plant compounds like Tannins found in acorns and other browse. Whitetails posses Proline rich salivary proteins that "bind" these tannins. Additionally, whitetails and other concentrate selectors have proportionately bigger livers to deal with the faster fermentation rates of the highly-digestible cell contents of the food they "select". The large liver also helps to quickly detoxify the chemicals found in some of these plants.
Voluntary feed intake will decrease as much as 40-60% in periods of severe heat-stress and winter-cold. Ingested energy in excess of Net energies of lactation, growth, and maintenance will be stored as fat.
In nature, whitetails ingest a diet of about:
Spring Summer Fall Winter
1. Forbs -52 % 1. Browse-58% 1. Browse-56% 1. Browse-63%
2. Browse - 34 % 2. Forbes - 35 % 2. Forbes - 32 % 2. Forbes - 24 %
3. Grasses-14% 3. Grasses-7% 3. Grasses-12% 3. Grasses-13%
Relatively more high protein forbs in the spring; more browse in the winter.
2.North American Elk / Wapiti
The Shawnee Indians gave the elk its name "Wapiti" which means "white or pale rump" which is eerily similar to the way the whitetails were named. The wapiti was once abundant through out North America, but was subject to intense slaughter for food, hides, and canine teeth, which were used as lucky charms. The elk was completely wiped out in the eastern United States in the 1800's, and its numbers were dangerously low elsewhere. Captive elk breeding in the US began in Montana and Oregon in the mid 1800's. In addition, Glacier National Park and Yellowstone provided elk breeders with relocation stock between 1892 and the late 1960's.
The impetus for raising elk broadened after the turn of the century; and captive elk became an alternative livestock. The USDA even published a "Farmers Bulletin" which included management proposals for the nations 16 elk-producers in 14 different states. Proper conservation laws and effective contributions from the private elk breeding industry have helped the nation's elk population rebound dramatically! President Theodore Roosevelt sent New Zealand some breeder elk as a gift. They were re-released on the South Island.
Male elk are called "bulls", female elk "cows" and baby elk "calves". An adult bull can reach 5-6 feet high at the shoulders; and weigh 700 - 1100 lbs! During the summer, an elk has a tan coat; with the head, mane and legs area a darker chestnut brown. The antlers on an adult bull can be 5 feet long; with a 5-foot spread! 5 to 7 points or more can often accompany these huge antlers. There are 2 main sub-species of elk:
1. Rocky Mountain Elk
2. Olympic or Roosevelt elk
Breeding season starts in September and may last as long as early March if the cow fails to conceive and reenters estrous. Most cows can breed at a year and a half of age, and approximately 440 lbs body weight. For a cow elk, the estrous cycle is from19 to 25 days long. The gestation period for elk is normally 248 days but can reach 255-259 days under extreme circumstances. A cow usually has a single calf, which is spotted at birth. The newborn calf will lose its spots 3 months later.
Elk have a relatively larger rumen-reticulum system than whitetails do. Elk are classified as "Intermediate Browsers" that are more adaptable and opportunistic than "Concentrate Selectors". Elk are flexible feeders and can either browse or graze; BUT are somewhat less effective at either than true browsers or true grazers. Elk are more immune to Bloat than concentrate selectors. In nature the elk's normal diet consists of
1. Grasses - 64%
2. Browse - 20%
3. Forbs - 16%
Eating less forbs and browse than concentrate selectors, an elks liver and salivary glands are proportionately smaller than a whitetail or mule deer's.
3. Red Deer
Red deer are one of the most widely distributed deer in the world. It is thought, that red deer were originally from regions of western China and parts of Russia. As such, they were probably the earliest of all cervids to be actively cultivated by man There is evidence the Romans, French and Persian empires all had some degree of red deer management as early as 1 BC!! Red deer velvet antler has long been prized by Eastern Asian countries for its healthful benefits and aphrodisiac qualities.
Red Deer Stags were prized as trophies by the Middle Age nobility and land owners of the British Isle and elsewhere in Europe. Their meat was highly sought after for banquets
In the late 60's New Zealand launched its fledgling alternative livestock industry; of which the red deer was of utmost importance.
Today, there are 2 major sub-species of red deer in the important deer farming regions of the world:
1. European Red Deer- under construction
2. Central Asian Red Deer - under construction
Male red deer are call stags. Female red deer are called hinds and babies are called calves and are spotted at birth. They lose their spots a couple months later. (under construction)
4. Fallow Deer-under construction
5. Sika Deer-under construction
6. Mule Deer-under construction
7. Axis Deer- Axis deer originated in India.
Axis deer are among the most colorful of the deer, with a coat that is a reddish brown most of the year, and random white spots along the length of their back. Below their head, sits a unique white band that is somewhat reminiscent of a bib. A black band runs the length of their body along their backbone, and a white stomach, tail, and inner leg area help set off the deer's amazing appearance.
The males are called bucks, and stand in the 30 to 40 inch range at the shoulder; while weighing in at up to 255 lbs live weight [150-200lbs is more the norm.]. Females are called does; and stand in the 25 to 33 inch range at the shoulder and can weigh up to 155 lbs fully grown.
8. Roe Deer-under construction