Chevrotains: Tragulidae

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Chevrotains look like tiny hornless deer with small heads, tapered snouts, skinny legs, and thick bodies. From head to rump, they measure 17 to 19 inches (44 to 85 centimeters), and they weigh 4.4 to 29 pounds (2 to 13 kilograms). Their backs are rounded and somewhat higher toward their rear ends, like the backs of rats. Their ears are tiny and covered with hair, which is short and thick over their entire body. The coat is reddish brown to brown with patterns of white and brown spots and stripes on various areas, depending on the species. Males have tusk-like teeth on top, but females have small, cone-shaped canines, teeth on either side of the four front teeth with one set on each jaw. Chevrotains have three fully developed stomach chambers, which allows for efficient digestion. Each foot has four toes.


Chevrotains are found in Southeast Asia and east central Africa.


Asian chevrotains live in rainforests, lowland forests, mangrove forests, and thickets. They prefer areas with thick vegetation during the day and venture into open area at night. The vegetation provides refuge from predators. African chevrotains live in tropical rainforests and thick growth along water courses. This species escapes predators by diving into the water.


Chevrotains eat grasses and leaves, favoring young shoots, fallen fruits, and seeds. They have been seen eating small animals occasionally.


Because they are shy and come out only at night, chevrotains are difficult to study. They are easily frightened and jump at the first sign of danger. Chevrotains are loners and socialize only during mating and while rearing young. The exception to this is the lesser Malay mouse deer, which is monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), has only one mate.

Chevrotains are territorial and mark their ranges using sounds and scent marks including feces, urine, and glandular secretions. Mouse deer bleat softly, like a lamb, when alarmed. Although they will fight, bouts are short and infrequent. Males fight with their tusk-like teeth.

Females are more active than males. All chevrotain sit on their hind legs or crouch with all legs folded to rest.

Little is known about the mating system of chevrotains. Gestation, pregnancy, lasts six to nine months and results in the birth of one offspring each year. Babies are nursed, fed with mother's milk, until the age of three to six months and can stand on their own within an hour after birth. Chevrotains are able to mate after nine to twenty-six months, and this is when the young leave home. These animals live to an age of eleven to thirteen years. Their primary predators are large birds of prey and reptiles.


Every culture has folklore, stories that have been passed down that provide explanations for events and natural phenomena. Most folklore includes a trickster, a creature who is able to trick other characters. Tricksters are usually animals that are small compared to the larger, heroic animals of folktales. But, they usually come out the wiser of the two.

A famous Southeast Asian folktale is about a mouse deer that outwits a fierce crocodile. The tale was put into print by Kathy and John Morris and I Nyoman Kartana in 1999 in the book Mouse Deer and Crocodile: An Asian Folktale.


Regardless of where they live, chevrotains are hunted by native populations for food. Some people keep them as pets. Although some zoos have had success in breeding water chevrotains, these animals have proven difficult to breed in captivity.


All four species are threatened by hunting and habitat destruction. The water chevrotain is listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as Data Deficient, meaning there is not enough population information to evaluate its risk, and only one subspecies is Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild.


Physical characteristics: The lesser Malay mouse deer is neither mouse nor deer, but it is the smallest living artiodactyl (ar-tee-oh-DACK-tuhl), weighing between 3.3 and 5.5 pounds (1.5 and 2.5 kilograms) and measuring 18 to 22 inches (45 to 55 centimeters) from head to rump. The tail is about 2 inches (5 centimeters). The large eyes are surrounded by a lighter ring of fur. The upper coat is brown tinged with orange, and the underside is white. Females are somewhat smaller than males.

Geographic range: Lesser Malay mouse deer are found in Malaysia, Cambodia, southwestern China, Indonesia, Borneo, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand.

Habitat: Lesser Malay mouse deer live in lowland forests. They are also found near water in thick vegetation, hollow trees, and among rocks.

Diet: Lesser Malay mouse deer eat leaves, buds, grass, and fallen fruits.

Behavior and reproduction: Recent studies suggest that this species, once believed to be nocturnal, active at night, and solitary, is actually somewhat active during the day and tends to form monogamous pairs. Lesser mouse deer are territorial and routinely mark their territory. When upset, this species will tap the ground with its hooves at a rate of seven times per second. They will also emit a shrill cry when frightened, but otherwise are silent.

Lesser Malay mouse deer are ready to breed at five to six months. Pregnancy lasts four to five months and produces one fawn, rarely two. The young can stand within thirty minutes of birth and the mother nurses her baby while standing. Offspring are weaned, removed from mother's milk, between ten and thirteen weeks. Within 55 to 155 minutes after they give birth, female lesser Malay mouse deer are able to get pregnant again.

Lifespan of the lesser Malay mouse deer is up to twelve years. Their predators include reptiles and large birds of prey such as owls and hawks.

Lesser Malay mouse deer and people: This species is hunted for its smooth skin, which is used for the production of leather goods such as wallets and handbags.

Conservation status: Although not threatened according to the IUCN, the lesser mouse deer population is threatened by habitat destruction and hunting. Their range and numbers have increased due to conservation efforts. ∎



Morris, Kathy, John Morris, and I. Nyoman Kartana. Mouse Deer and Crocodile: An Asian Folktale. Arlington, VA: Bamboo Books, 1999.

Web sites:

Starr, Christopher K. "Anansi the Spider Man: A West African Trickster in the West Indies." Acarology Conference, August 1999. (accessed on June 1, 2004).

Strawder, N. "Tragulus javanicus." Animal Diversity Web. (accessed on June 1, 2004).

"Tragulus javanicus." Ultimate Ungulate. (accessed on June 1, 2004).