Deer: Cervidae

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DEER: Cervidae



Deer have long bodies and long legs. Coats are various shades of brown; some species have white fur to blend in with the arctic environment. They have an enhanced sense of smell. All are capable swimmers and fast runners. Males of nearly every species have velvet-covered antlers that they shed each year; in some species, females also have antlers. Hooves help them navigate snow, but deep snows can lead to death due to lack of mobility, which results in predation and starvation. Males are usually larger than females. Deer species vary in weight from 22 pounds (10 kilograms) to 1,764 pounds (800 kilograms).


Deer are found everywhere except Australia and Africa.


Depending on the species, deer live in a variety of habitats. Most deer species prefer areas with thick forest undergrowth.


Deer are herbivores (plant eaters) that eat lichens (fungus found on trees), leaves, twigs, shoots, berries, and grasses. They have four stomach chambers, which allow them to chew and swallow their food and then regurgitate (vomit) it later for further chewing. This makes digestion more efficient.


Some deer are solitary (lone), but most species are polygynous (puh-LIH-juh-nus; one male to several female mates). Depending on species, they live in mother-offspring pairs or herds numbering into the tens of thousands of individuals.

Gestation (pregnancy) periods vary depending on species, but usually single births, sometimes twins, result. Calves are nursed (fed mother's milk) for a short time. Most babies are born able to walk, even run, within hours.

Predators include wolves, grizzly bears, coyotes, mountain lions, foxes, and wild cats. Life expectancy varies by species. Some deer live an average of two years, while others can live past the age of fifteen years.


A number of species are important game animals throughout the world. They are hunted for meat and sport, and the larger species are often a source of subsistence for native cultures that herd them.


Of the fifty-seven species, twenty-seven are included on the IUCN Red List. One is Extinct, died out; one is Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction; four are Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; six are Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction; four are Near Threatened, not currently threatened, but could become so; and eleven are considered Data Deficient, meaning there is not enough information to determine a conservation status. Reason for threats include overexploitation by humans as well as habitat destruction.


Physical characteristics: The Siberian musk deer weighs 18 to 36 pounds (8 to 16 kilograms) and measures 24 to 39 inches (60 to 100 centimeters). Coat is various shades of brown, and there are fuzzy whitish yellow spots on the neck and chest, with rows of brighter spots on both sides of the body.

Geographic range: This musk deer is found in eastern Asia.

Habitat: This deer needs plenty of lichens (LIE-kenz) to eat and shelter from predators. It lives in coniferous forests with dense undergrowth and ground moss. Siberian musk deer can move easily on top of snow because of their light weight. Deep, loose snow is difficult for them to navigate and can kill them.

Diet: Lichens are the primary food source, comprising 80 percent of their diet in winter. They also eat fir needles, twigs, leaves, berries, and mushrooms in winter. Musk deer have been known to migrate up to 20 miles (35 kilometers) for food. Lichens aid digestion in summer, at which time they also eat flowers, moss, shoots, and grass.

Behavior and reproduction: Five to seven females and their offspring live together on a home range. This home range overlaps with that of a dominating male. The more important or stronger females live at the center of the range, and as old deer die, younger ones move toward the center. Musk deer are nocturnal (active at night). Although fast runners, they tire quickly, so they escape predators usually by jumping and leaping as they run.

These polygamous (puh-LIH-guh-mus) animals give birth in April, May or June, depending on the region. Fawns are hidden for up to two months. Primary predators include lynx, wolverine, foxes, wolves, tiger, bear, and the yellow-throated marten.

Siberian musk deer and people: Humans hunt this species for their musk, which is produced by an abdominal gland in males and valued for its cosmetic and medical uses.

Conservation status: Listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN due to overhunting. ∎


Physical characteristics: Measures 35 to 53.2 inches (89 to 135 centimeters) long with a shoulder height of 15.7 to 25.6 inches (40 to 65 centimeters). Weight ranges from 33.1 to 77.2 pounds (15 to 35 kilograms), with males being larger than females. Males have small antlers about 6 inches (15 centimeters) long. Females have small knobs where antlers would be. Coat coloration is gold and white, with limbs and face being dark to reddish brown. Indian muntjacs have small ears and tusk-like upper canines measuring 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in males.

Geographic range: Found in northeastern Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, southern China, Vietnam, Malay Peninsula and some nearby islands, Riau Archipelago, Sumatra and Nias Island to the west, Bangka, Belitun Island, Java, Bali, and Borneo.

Habitat: Indian muntjacs live in tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, and scrub forests as well as hilly areas, grasslands, and savannas. They must remain near a water source.

Diet: Feed on herbs, fruit, birds' eggs, small animals, seeds, sprouts, and grasses found at the edge of the forest or in a clearing. They catch animals by biting with their canines and punching with their strong forelegs.

Behavior and reproduction: Although they sometimes move in pairs or small groups, adults are solitary (lone). When in danger of predation, Indian muntjacs bark like dogs, sometimes for more than an hour, to scare away the predator. Pythons, jackals, tigers, leopards, and crocodiles are the primary enemies of this deer.

This deer is ready to breed between the ages of six and twelve months. After a six-month pregnancy, females give birth to one fawn, rarely two, which remains with the mother until the age of six months. Though no one is sure how long muntjacs live in the wild, this species lives about seventeen years in captivity.

Indian muntjacs and people: Muntjacs are hunted for their meat and skins, and hunters themselves make the barking sound of the muntjac to warn other hunters of approaching danger, such as a tiger. Muntjac populations are a threat when found in larger numbers because they tear bark from trees, which takes a toll on sources for humans' shelter and fuel.

Conservation status: The Indian muntjac is not considered threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Males weigh up to 480 pounds (190 kilograms) and stand up to 48 inches (120 centimeters) high at the shoulder. Females weigh up to 240 pounds (110 kilograms) and stand up to 44 inches (110 centimeters) high at the shoulder. The coat is a rich red color that changes to grayish brown in the cold months. The rump sports a creamy white patch and short tail. Males have antlers that fall off from February to April each year. New ones grow in August.

Geographic range: Found in western Europe, northwest Africa, Asia to western China, and northwestern America. Red deer have been successfully introduced to New Zealand.

Habitat: Red deer prefer to live in forested areas, but in regions where forests have been cleared, this species has adapted. They can be found in open plains, marshlands, mountain terraces, and meadows.

Diet: Red deer feed mostly on twigs, leaves, and stems of broadleaf trees and shrubs, needles and branches of fir trees, herbs, lichens,

fruits, and fungi. They enjoy willow, oak, poplar, and mountain ash trees. Those found in North America depend on western hemlock, fir, western red cedar, willow, and ferns. They also eat skunk cabbage, wall lettuce, and red elderberry.

Behavior and reproduction: Active throughout a twenty-four-hour cycle, red deer are most active at dawn and dusk. They live in small groups within woodlands, where the forest covering offers more protection. In open spaces, they live in larger herds. Males and females live separately except during breeding season, which is in October. At this time, herds separate and males gather together a group of females. During breeding (also known as "rutting") season, males become more aggressive and less tolerant of one another. Rival stags will roar at one another, lock antlers, and push at each other until one stag "wins" the group of up to forty or so females. Now and then stag antlers will lock, and the two deer will starve to death. Other than this, stags rarely kill each other in the fight for dominance.

After a pregnancy of thirty-three to thirty-four weeks, females give birth to one calf, which is weaned (taken off mother's milk) between nine and twelve months. At one-and-a-half years of age, red deer are ready to mate. Stags live to the age of twelve years in the wild, females to ten. Predators include foxes, wild cats, golden eagles, and wolves, which prey on the young.

Red deer and people: This deer is hunted for its meat (venison) and for sport. Teams of red deer pulled coaches in ceremonial processions connected with the hunting goddess Diana in Ancient Rome. Humans are the red deer's primary predator today.

Conservation status: Not threatened. Red deer farming is becoming popular in all regions. Herds in Britain are large enough that they must be culled (reduced in number by selection according to those fittest for survival and reproduction) annually so they do not starve. ∎


Physical characteristics: This is a small deer species, weighing 110 to 300 pounds (50 to 136 kilograms) and measuring 67 to 77 inches (170 to 195 centimeters) long. Summer coat is a foxy-red color. Coat changes to grayish brown in fall, and hairs grow thicker and longer. The underpart of the tail is white, as is the throat, nose, stomach, and area surrounding the eyes. Only males have antlers, but both sexes have scent glands on all four hooves. Although their eyesight and hearing are well developed, they rely on sense of smell to detect danger.

Geographic range: This deer is found in southern Canada and all of the United States except for Hawaii, Alaska, and the southwest. Also lives throughout Central America to Bolivia.

Habitat: Although they have adapted to live in a variety of habitats ranging from swamps and farmland to forest, white-tailed deer prefer to live in areas with dense thickets (growths of bushes) and clear edges (for food).

Diet: Almost 70 percent of this deer's diet consists of tree and shrub leaves and twigs. Adults need 5 to 11 pounds (2.5 to 5 kilograms) of food daily. In winter, stored body fat allows them to subsist on 2 pounds (1 kilogram) daily. Though watering places are often at the center of home ranges, this animal can go without water if succulent (water-based) plants are available.

Behavior and reproduction: When sensing danger, this deer will stomp its hooves, snort, and point its tail up to alert other deer. Able to run at speeds of up to thirty miles per hour, these deer are also able jumpers and swimmers. Home ranges are usually less than one square mile (2.59 square kilometers). Females live alone unless they are mothers, and bucks live in small herds of three or four individuals except during mating season.

White-tailed deer are polygynous and begin breeding in late September into December. Pregnancy lasts 188 to 222 days and usually results in the birth of twins. Within hours, they nurse and walk around following the mother, though they prefer to hide until around ten days, when they begin eating on their own. They nurse until eight to ten weeks of age. Usual rate of first breeding is two years for both sexes. Mortality rate among white-tailed deer is high, around 30 to 50 percent. Most live to be two or three years old. Predators include bears, mountain lions, wolves, jaguars, and coyotes.

White-tailed deer and people: This species is the most numerous of big game animals in the world. Hunters kill about three million each year, and still the population thrives. White-tailed deer carry Lyme disease, which has become more prevalent among humans, especially in the northeastern states. Some people consider this deer a pest because it gets into yards and eats shrubs, flowers, and other ornamental vegetation.

Conservation status: White-tailed deer are not threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: The smallest deer in the world weighs 20 to 33 pounds (9 to 15 kilograms) and stands 14 to 18 inches (35 to 45 centimeters) high at the shoulder. Its thick coat is a reddish brown, and the lips and insides of ears are tinged with orange. Males have short spiked antlers. Body is low to the ground. Eyes and ears are small. The tail of this deer is so small as to be almost nonexistent.

Geographic range: The pudu lives in Argentina and southern Chile.

Habitat: This deer lives in rainforests, bamboo groves, and in mountains. Prefers thickets for protection from wild cats and foxes.

Diet: The pudu eats twigs, leaves, fruits, seeds, and bark. Stands on back legs to reach food if necessary.

Behavior and reproduction: These solitary deer socialize only during mating season. They traverse the jungle via well-worn paths and form dung piles near resting places. Each pudu has a home range of 40 to 60 acres (16.2 to 24.3 hectares).

This polygynous deer mates in the fall. Pregnancy lasts about 210 days and results in the birth of a single fawn. Babies nurse for two months. Females are ready to mate at twelve months, males at eighteen. Life expectancy is eight to ten years.

Southern pudu and people: Hunted for food and sport.

Conservation status: Endangered due to habitat destruction and domestic dogs. ∎


Physical characteristics: Adults weigh 594 to 1,320 pounds (270 to 600 kilograms) and measure 7.9 to 10.5 feet (2.4 to 3.2 meters) long. The antlers of the male are longer than those of any mammal in the world and can measure up to 6.6 feet (2 meters) wide from tip to tip. The head is huge and long, with a square upper lip that hangs over the lower one. Muzzle is hairy. Coat is dark brown, fading to light brown on the long legs. Hearing and sense of smell are excellent.

Geographic range: Moose are found in North America and Eurasia.

Habitat: Moose live in forests where there is snow in winter. They like territory with ponds and lakes. Because they are not able to sweat, moose need to live in cooler climates. In summer, they cool off in water.

Diet: Moose eat bark and branches during winter and enjoy leaves, herbs, and aquatic plants in summer. In winter, adults eat 22 to 30 pounds (10 to 13 kilograms) of food each day; that amount doubles in summer and spring. Moose can also eat toxic plants.

Behavior and reproduction: Moose live alone or in small groups. No social bonding occurs. Moose can run at 35 miles per hour (56 kilometers per hour) and swim at 6 miles per hour (9.7 kilometers per hour). They tend to stay in the same area, though some migrate between favored sites, up to 186 miles (300 kilometers) in European species. Home ranges are 3.1 to 6.2 square miles (5 to 10 square kilometers).

The polygynous moose begin breeding in August. Females attract males with a loud moaning bellow, and males groan in response. Females also emit a powerful scent. Males compete for females, and after a 215- to 243-day pregnancy, a single calf is born (though twins are common). Young moose nurse until five months of age, and they begin eating food as early as three weeks. They stay with their mother until they are one year, or the next calf is born.

Almost half of all moose young die within the first year of life. Though moose live to be five to twelve years, at eight years they begin to suffer from arthritis and dental disease. Although large, moose fall prey to grizzly bears and wolves.

Moose and people: Moose meat is a main source of food for many people. In North America, more than fifty thousand moose are harvested annually for meat and sport. They are a main attraction in the ecotourism industry.

Conservation status: Moose are not threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Acknowledged as the tame subspecies of caribou, this animal weighs 121 to 699.6 pounds (55 to 318 kilograms) and measures 381 to 584.2 inches (150 to 230 centimeters) long. Males can be twice as big as females. Tails are short, and coat color varies from dark brown to almost white, depending on the region. Hooves are large and broad, which assist the reindeer in swimming. Both sexes have antlers.

Geographic range: Reindeer are found throughout the upper latitudes of Eurasia and North America.

Habitat: Reindeer live in arctic deserts on Arctic Ocean islands as well as on arctic tundra (treeless region of north polar areas). They like coniferous forests of pine and larch trees where woody lichens are abundant. Forest swamps and marshlands also appeal to reindeer.

Diet: The summer diet includes willows, birches, mushrooms, and grasses. In winter, reindeer eat dry plants, cotton grass, and mosses.

The moss is especially important because it contains a chemical that acts like antifreeze and keeps body fluids from freezing. Lichens are an important source of carbohydrates and are eaten year-round.

Behavior and reproduction: Reindeer migrate in spring and fall, sometimes covering as many as 3,105 miles (6,000 kilometers) in one year. They can travel at a rate of 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour). They live in mother-offspring pairs, herds, and gatherings. Typical herds include 2,500 to 3,000 individuals with a single leader. During migration, herds can reach 80,000 to 100,000 animals.

The polygynous reindeer breed in September and October, and fights between rival males are frequent. Victors "win" seven to eight females. Pregnancy lasts 192 to 246 days and result in the birth of one calf. Newborns are able to stand within an hour and can outrun a human within twenty-four hours. They nurse for one month and then begin grazing with the mother. Calves retain a strong bond with mothers for three months. Females live longer than males, sometimes past fifteen years. Average life expectancy for males is 4.5 years. Primary predators are wolves, brown bear, raven, golden eagle, and sea eagle. Calves often die during migration due to cold and exhaustion; 40 percent die in the first year, 30 percent in the second.

Adult males shed antlers soon after breeding, but females don't shed them until spring. Reindeer are able swimmers and can cross water bodies that are 75 miles (120 kilometers) wide.

Reindeer and people: Native peoples of the north depend on reindeer for their survival in terms of food and skin. A number of native cultures in America, Siberia, and Scandinavia revolve around reindeer and caribou herding. Velvet antlers are used in Asian medicine.

Conservation status: Reindeer are not threatened. ∎



Geist, Valerius. Deer of the World: Their Evolution, Behaviour, and Ecology. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998.

Rue, Leonard III. The Encyclopedia of Deer: Your Guide to the World's Deer Species, Including White Tails, Mule Deer, Caribou, Elk, Moose and More. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press, 2004.

Wexo, John Bonnett, et al. The Deer Family (Zoobooks). Minnetonka, MN: Creative Publishing, 1999.

Web sites:

Fox, D. and P. Myers. "Cervidae." Animal Diversity Web. (accessed on June 3, 2004).

"Indian Muntjac." Sedgwick County Zoo. (accessed on June 3, 2004).

"Moose Biology with Kristine Bontaites." Mooseworld. (accessed on June 3, 2004).

"Pudu puda." Ultimate Ungulate. (accessed on June 3, 2004).

"Red Deer." Young People's Trust for the Environment. (accessed on June 3, 2004).

"Science & Nature: Animals: Red Deer, Wapiti, Elk." BBC. (accessed on June 3, 2004).

"White-tailed Deer." Natureworks. (accessed on June 3, 2004).