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Fossil range: Template:Fossil range
Male and female Mule deer
Male and female Mule deer
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Suborder: Ruminantia
Family: Cervidae
Goldfuss, 1820


Deer are the ruminant mammals forming the family Cervidae. A number of broadly similar animals from related families within the order Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates) are often also called deer. Male deer of all species (except the Chinese water deer) grow and shed new antlers each year – in this they differ from permanently horned animals such as antelope – these are in the same order as deer and may bear a superficial resemblance. The Musk deer of Asia and Mouse Deer or Water Chevrotain of tropical African and Asian forests are not true deer and form their own families, Moschidae and Tragulidae, respectively. All other animals in Africa resembling deer are antelope.


The word "deer" was originally quite broad in meaning, but became more specific over time. In Middle English der (Old English dēor) meant a wild animal of any kind (as opposed to cattle, which then meant any domestic livestock).[1] This general sense gave way to the modern sense by the end of the Middle English period, around 1500. Cognates of English "deer" in several other languages still have the general sense of "animal – for example German Tier, Dutch dier, and Scandinavian djur, dyr, dýr. "Deer" is the same in the plural as in the singular.

For most deer the male is called a buck and the female is a doe, but terminology varies according to the size of the species. For many medium-sized deer the male is a stag and the female a hind, while for many larger deer the same words are used as for cattle: bull and cow. Terms for young deer vary similarly, with that of most being called a fawn and that of the larger species calf; young of the smallest kinds may be a kid. A group of deer of any kind is a herd. Usage of all these terms may also vary according to dialect. The adjective of relation pertaining to deer is cervine; like the family name "Cervidae" this is from Latin cervus, "deer".

The word hart is an old alternative word for "stag" (from Old English heorot, "deer" – compare with modern Dutch hert, also "deer"). It is not now widely used, but Shakespeare makes several references (for example in Twelfth Night), punning on the sound-alike "hart" and "heart". "The White Hart" and "The Red Hart" remain common English pub names, and the county Hertfordshire is thought to be named after a place where deer forded a watercourse. Whinfell Forest once contained a landmark tree called Harthorn.[2]



Reeves's Muntjac deer

File:Reindeer in Kebnekaise.jpg

Reindeer in Sweden

File:White-tail deer.jpg

White-tail deer in Toronto, Canada

File:Daněk 3.jpg

Fallow buck in the Czech Republic

Deer are widely distributed, and hunted, with indigenous representatives in all continents except Antarctica and Australia, though Africa has only one native species, the Red Deer, confined to the Atlas Mountains in the northwest of the continent.

Deer live in a variety of biomes ranging from tundra to the tropical rainforest. While often associated with forests, many deer are ecotone species that live in transitional areas between forests and thickets (for cover) and prairie and savanna (open space). The majority of large deer species inhabit temperate mixed deciduous forest, mountain mixed coniferous forest, tropical seasonal/dry forest, and savanna habitats around the world. Clearing open areas within forests to some extent may actually benefit deer populations by exposing the understory and allowing the types of grasses, weeds, and herbs to grow that deer like to eat. Additionally, access to adjacent croplands may also benefit deer. However, adequate forest or brush cover must still be provided for populations to grow and thrive.

Small species such as the brocket deer and pudús of Central and South America, and the muntjacs of Asia generally occupy dense forests and are less often seen in open spaces, with the possible exception of the Red Brocket and the Indian Muntjac. There are also several species of deer that are highly specialized, and live almost exclusively in mountains, grasslands, swamps, and "wet" savannas, or riparian corridors surrounded by deserts. Some deer have a circumpolar distribution in both North America and Eurasia. Examples include the caribou that live in Arctic tundra and taiga (boreal forests) and moose that inhabit taiga and adjacent areas. Huemul Deer (taruca and Chilean Huemul) of South America's Andes fill an ecological niche of the ibex or Wild Goat, with the fawns behaving more like goat kids.

The highest concentration of large deer species in temperate North America lies in the Canadian Rocky Mountain and Columbia Mountain Regions between Alberta and British Columbia where all five North American deer species (White-tailed deer, Mule deer, Caribou, Elk, and Moose) can be found. This region has several clusters of national parks including Mount Revelstoke National Park, Glacier National Park (Canada), Yoho National Park, and Kootenay National Park on the British Columbia side, and Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, and Glacier National Park (U.S.) on the Alberta and Montana sides. Mountain slope habitats vary from moist coniferous/mixed forested habitats to dry subalpine/pine forests with alpine meadows higher up. The foothills and river valleys between the mountain ranges provide a mosaic of cropland and deciduous parklands. The rare woodland caribou have the most restricted range living at higher altitudes in the subalpine meadows and alpine tundra areas of some of the mountain ranges. Elk and Mule Deer both migrate between the alpine meadows and lower coniferous forests and tend to be most common in this region. Elk also inhabit river valley bottomlands, which they share with White-tailed deer. The White-tailed deer have recently expanded their range within the foothills and river valley bottoms of the Canadian Rockies owing to conversion of land to cropland and the clearing of coniferous forests allowing more deciduous vegetation to grow up the mountain slopes. They also live in the aspen parklands north of Calgary and Edmonton, where they share habitat with the moose. The adjacent Great Plains grassland habitats are left to herds of Elk, American Bison, and pronghorn antelope.

The Eurasian Continent (including the Indian Subcontinent) boasts the most species of deer in the world, with most species being found in Asia. Europe, in comparison, has lower diversity in plant and animal species. However, many national parks and protected reserves in Europe do have populations of Red Deer, Roe Deer, and Fallow Deer. These species have long been associated with the continent of Europe, but also inhabit Asia Minor, the Caucasus Mountains, and Northwestern Iran. "European" Fallow Deer historically lived over much of Europe during the Ice Ages, but afterwards became restricted primarily to the Anatolian Peninsula, in present-day Turkey. Present-day Fallow deer populations in Europe are a result of historic man-made introductions of this species first to the Mediterranean regions of Europe, then eventually to the rest of Europe. They were initially park animals that later escaped and reestablished themselves in the wild. Historically, Europe's deer species shared their deciduous forest habitat with other herbivores such as the extinct tarpan (forest horse), extinct aurochs (forest ox), and the endangered wisent (European bison). Good places to see deer in Europe include the Scottish Highlands, the Austrian Alps, and the wetlands between Austria, Hungary, and Czech Republic. Some fine National Parks include Doñana National Park in Spain, the Veluwe in the Netherlands, the Ardennes in Belgium, and Bialowieza National Park of Poland. Spain, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus Mountains still have virgin forest areas that are not only home to sizable deer populations but also for other animals that were once abundant such as the wisent, Eurasian Lynx, Spanish lynx, wolves, and Brown Bears.

The highest concentration of large deer species in temperate Asia occurs in the mixed deciduous forests, mountain coniferous forests, and taiga bordering North Korea, Manchuria (Northeastern China), and the Ussuri Region (Russia). These are among some of the richest deciduous and coniferous forests in the world where one can find Siberian Roe Deer, Sika Deer, Elk, and Moose. Asian Caribou occupy the northern fringes of this region along the Sino-Russian border.

Deer such as the Sika Deer, Thorold's deer, Central Asian Red Deer, and Elk have historically been farmed for their antlers by Han Chinese, Turkic peoples, Tungusic peoples, Mongolians, and Koreans. Like the Sami people of Finland and Scandinavia, the Tungusic peoples, Mongolians, and Turkic peoples of Southern Siberia, Northern Mongolia, and the Ussuri Region have also taken to raising semi-domesticated herds of Asian Caribou.

The highest concentration of large deer species in the tropics occurs in Southern Asia in Northern India's Indo-Gangetic Plain Region and Nepal's Terai Region. These fertile plains consist of tropical seasonal moist deciduous, dry deciduous forests, and both dry and wet savannas that are home to Chital, Hog Deer, Barasingha, Indian Sambar, and Indian Muntjac. Grazing species such as the endangered Barasingha and very common Chital are gregarious and live in large herds. Indian Sambar can be gregarious but are usually solitary or live in smaller herds. Hog Deer are solitary and have lower densities than Indian Muntjac. Deer can be seen in several national parks in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka of which Kanha National Park, Dudhwa National Park, and Chitwan National Park are most famous. Sri Lanka's Wilpattu National Park and Yala National Park have large herds of Indian Sambar and Chital. The Indian sambar are more gregarious in Sri Lanka than other parts of their range and tend to form larger herds than elsewhere.

The Chao Praya River Valley of Thailand was once primarily tropical seasonal moist deciduous forest and wet savanna that hosted populations of Hog Deer, the now-extinct Schomburgk's Deer, the Eld's Deer, Indian Sambar, and Indian Muntjac. Both the Hog Deer and Eld's Deer are rare, whereas Indian Sambar and Indian Muntjac thrive in protected national parks such as Khao Yai.

Many of these South Asian and Southeast Asian deer species also share their habitat with various herbivores such as Asian Elephants, various Asian rhinoceros species, various antelope species (such as nilgai, Four-horned Antelope, blackbuck, and Indian gazelle in India), and wild oxen (such as Wild Asian Water Buffalo, gaur, banteng, and kouprey).

Australia has six introduced species of deer that have established sustainable wild populations from Acclimatisation Society releases in the 19th Century. These are Fallow Deer, Red Deer, Sambar Deer, Hog Deer, Rusa deer, and Chital. Red Deer introduced into New Zealand in 1851 from English and Scottish stock were domesticated in deer farms by the late 1960s and are common farm animals there now. Seven other species of deer were introduced into New Zealand but none are as widespread as Red Deer.[3]


Extant deer range in size from the Template:Convert/LoffAonDbSoffTemplate:Convert/test/Aon Northern Pudu to the Template:Convert/LoffAonDbSoffTemplate:Convert/test/Aon Moose. They generally have lithe, compact bodies and long, powerful legs suited for rugged woodland terrain. Deer are also excellent jumpers and swimmers. Deer are ruminants, or cud-chewers, and have a four-chambered stomach. The teeth of deer are adapted to feeding on vegetation, and like other ruminants, they lack upper incisors, instead having a tough pad at the front of their upper jaw. The Chinese water deer, Tufted deer and muntjac have enlarged upper canine teeth forming sharp tusks, while other species often lack upper canines altogether. The cheek teeth of deer have crescent ridges of enamel, which enable them to grind a wide variety of vegetation.[4] The dental formula for deer is:Template:Dentition2

Nearly all deer have a facial gland in front of each eye. The gland contains a strongly scented pheromone, used to mark its home range. Bucks of a wide range of species open these glands wide when angry or excited. All deer have a liver without a gallbladder. Deer also have a Tapetum lucidum which gives them sufficiently good night vision.

File:Wapiti (01) 2006-09-19.JPG

Female Elk nursing young

A doe generally has one or two fawns at a time (triplets, while not unknown, are uncommon). The gestation period is anywhere up to ten months for the European Roe Deer. Most fawns are born with their fur covered with white spots, though in many species they lose their spots once they get older. In the first twenty minutes of a fawn's life, the fawn begins to take its first steps. Its mother licks it clean until it is almost free of scent, so predators will not find it. Its mother leaves often, and the fawn does not like to be left behind. Sometimes its mother must gently push it down with her foot.[5] The fawn stays hidden in the grass for one week until it is strong enough to walk with its mother. The fawn and its mother stay together for about one year. A male usually never sees his mother again, but females sometimes come back with their own fawns and form small herds.

File:Fawn in Forest edit.jpg


Deer are selective feeders. They are usually browsers, and primarily feed on leaves. They have small, unspecialized stomachs by ruminant standards, and high nutrition requirements. Rather than attempt to digest vast quantities of low-grade, fibrous food as, for example, sheep and cattle do, deer select easily digestible shoots, young leaves, fresh grasses, soft twigs, fruit, fungi, and lichens.


File:White-tailed deer.jpg

White-tailed deer

With the exception of the Chinese Water Deer, all male deer have antlers that are shed and regrown every year from a structure called a pedicle. Sometimes a female will have a small stub. The only female deer with antlers are Reindeer (Caribou). Antlers grow as highly vascular spongy tissue covered in a skin called velvet. Before the beginning of a species' mating season, the antlers calcify under the velvet and become hard bone. The velvet is then rubbed off leaving dead bone which forms the hard antlers. After the mating season, the pedicle and the antler base are separated by a layer of softer tissue, and the antler falls off.

One way that many hunters are able to track main paths that the deer travel on is because of their "rubs". A rub is used to deposit scent from glands near the eye and forehead and physically mark territory.

During the mating season, bucks use their antlers to fight one another for the opportunity to attract mates in a given herd. The two bucks circle each other, bend back their legs, lower their heads, and charge.

Each species has its own characteristic antler structure – for example white-tailed deer antlers include a series of tines sprouting upward from a forward-curving main beam, while Fallow Deer and Moose antlers are palmate, with a broad central portion. Mule deer (and Black-tailed Deer), species within the same genus as the white-tailed deer, instead have bifurcated (or branched) antlers—that is, the main beam splits into two, each of which may split into two more.[6] Young males of many deer, and the adults of some species, such as Muntjacs, have antlers which are single spikes.

Most species of deer in the "True Deer" subfamily (Cervinae) have large, impressive antlers with several tines, highly prized by game hunters and collectors. Four Members of the Odocoleinae subfamily whose antlers are also popular and sought after are the moose, caribou, White-tailed deer, and mule deer. The most impressive White-tailed deer antlers come from populations in Texas, the Northern Great Plains Region, the Great Lakes Region, and the Piedmont (United States). The most impressive mule deer antlers come from populations in the Rocky Mountains. The most impressive moose and caribou antlers come from populations living in Siberia, Canada, and Alaska. For Elk and Red Deer, a stag having 14 points is an "imperial", and a stag having 12 points is a "royal". Occasional individual males may have no antlers: these are known as hummels, and they may grow significantly larger than normal males.


File:Cervocerus novorossiae.jpg

Cervocerus novorossiae

The earliest fossil deer date from the Oligocene of Europe, and resembled the modern muntjacs. Later species were often larger, with more impressive antlers. They rapidly spread to the other continents, even for a time occupying much of northern Africa, where they are now almost wholly absent. Some extinct deer had huge antlers, larger than those of any living species. Examples include Eucladoceros, and the giant deer Megaloceros, whose antlers stretched to 3.5 metres across.

Economic significance

File:Lucas Cranach the Elder Stag Hunt.jpg

"The Stag Hunt of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony" by Lucas Cranach the Elder

File:Mavrogheni trasura cerbi.jpg

Nicholas Mavrogenes, Phanariote Prince of Wallachia, riding through Bucharest in a deer−drawn carriage (late 1780s)

Deer have long had economic significance to humans. Deer meat, for which they are hunted and farmed, is called venison. Deer organ meat is called umble.

The Sami of Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula of Russia and other nomadic peoples of northern Asia use reindeer for food, clothing, and transport.

The caribou in North America is not domesticated or herded as is the case of reindeer (the same species) in Europe, but is important as a quarry animal to the Inuit. Most commercial venison in the United States is imported from New Zealand.

Deer were originally brought to New Zealand by European settlers, and the deer population rose rapidly. This caused great environmental damage and was controlled by hunting and poisoning until the concept of deer farming developed in the 1960s. Deer farms in New Zealand number more than 3,500, with more than 400,000 deer in all.

Automobile collisions with deer can impose a significant cost on the economy. In the U.S., about 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions occur each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those accidents cause about 150 deaths and $1.1 billion in property damage annually.[3]


Note that the terms indicate the origin of the groups, not their modern distribution: the water deer, for example, is a New World species but is found only in China and Korea.

It is thought that the new world group evolved about 5 million years ago in the forests of North America and Siberia, the old world deer in Asia.

Subfamilies, genera and species

The family Cervidae is organized as follows:

  • Subfamily Muntiacinae (Muntjacs)
    • Genus Muntiacus:
      • Indian Muntjac or Common Muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak)
      • Reeves's Muntjac or Chinese Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi)
      • Hairy-fronted Muntjac or Black Muntjac (Muntiacus crinifrons)
      • Fea's Muntjac (Muntiacus feae)
      • Bornean Yellow Muntjac (Muntiacus atherodes)
      • Roosevelt's muntjac (Muntiacus rooseveltorum)
      • Gongshan muntjac (Muntiacus gongshanensis)
      • Giant Muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis)
      • Truong Son Muntjac (Muntiacus truongsonensis)
      • Leaf muntjac (Muntiacus putaoensis)
      • Sumatran Muntjac (Muntiacus montanum)
    • Genus Elaphodus:
      • Tufted deer (Elaphodus cephalophus)
  • Subfamily Cervinae (True Deer, Old World Deer):
    • Genus Cervus:
      • Subgenus Cervus:
        • European red deer (Cervus elaphus)
        • Central Asian Red Deer (Cervus wallichi)
        • Elk (Cervus canadensis) (North American and Asian Elk; second largest deer in world; not to be confused with Moose, known as Elk in Europe)
      • Subgenus Przewalskium:
        • Thorold's deer, or white-lipped deer (Cervus albirostris)
      • Subgenus Sika:
        • Sika Deer (Cervus nippon)
      • Subgenus Rucervus:
        • Barasingha (Cervus duvaucelii)
        • Schomburgk's Deer (Cervus schomburgki) (extinct, 1938)
        • Eld's Deer or Thamin (Cervus eldii)
      • Subgenus Rusa:
        • Indian Sambar (Cervus unicolor)
        • Sunda Sambar or Rusa Deer (Cervus timorensis)
        • Philippine Sambar (Cervus mariannus)
        • Philippine Spotted Deer or Visayan Spotted Deer (Cervus alfredi) (smallest Old World deer)
    • Genus Axis:
      • Subgenus Axis:
        • Chital or Axis deer (Axis axis)
      • Subgenus Hyelaphus:
        • Hog Deer (Axis porcinus)
        • Calamian Deer (Axis calamianensis)
        • Bawean Deer (Axis kuhlii)
    • Genus Elaphurus:
      • Père David's Deer (Elaphurus davidianus)
    • Genus Dama:
      • Fallow Deer (Dama dama)
      • Persian fallow deer (Dama mesopotamica)
    • Genus Megaloceros:
      • Giant Deer (Megaloceros giganteus) †[7]
File:Pudu pudu AB.jpg

Pudú, the smallest species of deer

  • Subfamily Hydropotinae (Water Deer)
    • Genus Hydropotes:
      • Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis)
  • Subfamily Odocoileinae/Capreolinae (New World Deer)
    • Genus Odocoileus:
      • White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
      • Mule deer, or Black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus)
    • Genus Blastocerus:
      • Marsh Deer (Blastocerus dichotomus)
    • Genus Ozotoceros:
      • Pampas deer (Ozotoceros bezoarticus)
    • Genus Mazama:
      • Red Brocket (Mazama americana)
      • Merida Brocket (Mazama bricenii)
      • Dwarf Brocket (Mazama chunyi)
      • Gray Brocket (Mazama gouazoubira)
      • Pygmy Brocket (Mazama nana)
      • Yucatan Brown Brocket (Mazama pandora)
      • Little Red Brocket (Mazama rufina)
    • Genus Pudu:
      • Northern Pudu (Pudu mephistophiles) (smallest deer in the world)
      • Southern Pudú (Pudu pudu)
    • Genus Hippocamelus:
      • Taruca or North Andean Deer (Hippocamelus antisensis)
      • Chilean Huemul or South Andean Deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus)
    • Genus Capreolus:
      • European Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)
      • Siberian Roe Deer (Capreolus pygargus)
    • Genus Rangifer:
      • Caribou/Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)
    • Genus Alces:
      • Moose (Alces alces; called "Elk" outside North America) (largest deer in the world)

Moose, the largest species of deer

Hybrid deer

In On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin wrote "Although I do not know of any thoroughly well-authenticated cases of perfectly fertile hybrid animals, I have some reason to believe that the hybrids from Cervulus vaginalis and Reevesii [...] are perfectly fertile." These two varieties of muntjac are currently considered the same species.

A number of deer hybrids are bred to improve meat yield in farmed deer. American Elk (or Wapiti) and Red Deer from the Old World can produce fertile offspring in captivity, and were once considered one species. Hybrid offspring, however, must be able to escape and defend themselves against predators, and these hybrid offspring are unable to do so in the wild state. Recent DNA, animal behavior studies, and morphology and antler characteristics have shown there are not one but three species of Red Deer: European Red Deer, Central Asian Red Deer, and American Elk or Wapiti. The European Elk is a different species and is known as moose in North America. The hybrids are about 30% more efficient in producing antlers by comparing velvet to body weight. Wapiti have been introduced into some European Red Deer herds to improve the Red Deer type, but not always with the intended improvement.

In New Zealand, where deer are introduced species, there are hybrid zones between Red Deer and North American Wapiti populations and also between Red Deer and Sika Deer populations. In New Zealand, Red Deer have been artificially hybridized with Pere David Deer in order to create a farmed deer which gives birth in spring. The initial hybrids were created by artificial insemination and back-crossed to Red Deer. However, such hybrid offspring can only survive in captivity free of predators.

In Canada, the farming of European Red Deer and Red Deer hybrids is considered a threat to native Wapiti. In Britain, the introduced Sika Deer is considered a threat to native Red Deer. Initial Sika Deer/Red Deer hybrids occur when young Sika stags expand their range into established red deer areas and have no Sika hinds to mate with. They mate instead with young Red hinds and produce fertile hybrids. These hybrids mate with either Sika or Red Deer (depending which species is prevalent in the area), resulting in mongrelization. Many of the Sika Deer which escaped from British parks were probably already hybrids for this reason. These hybrids do not properly inherit survival strategies and can only survive in either a captive state or when there are no predators.

In captivity, Mule Deer have been mated to White-tail Deer. Both male Mule Deer/female White-tailed Deer and male White-tailed Deer/female Mule Deer matings have produced hybrids. Less than 50% of the hybrid fawns survived their first few months. Hybrids have been reported in the wild but are disadvantaged because they don't properly inherit survival strategies. Mule Deer move with bounding leaps (all 4 hooves hit the ground at once, also called "stotting") to escape predators. Stotting is so specialized that only 100% genetically pure Mule Deer seem able to do it. In captive hybrids, even a one-eighth White-tail/seven-eighths Mule Deer hybrid has an erratic escape behaviour and would be unlikely to survive to breeding age. Hybrids do survive on game ranches where both species are kept and where predators are controlled by man.

See also

  • Deer rub


  2. Magna Britannica et Hibernia
  3. Deer An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966
  4. Cockerill, Rosemary (1984). Macdonald, D. The Encyclopedia of Mammals, 520–529, New York: Facts on File.
  5. [1]
  6. [2]
  7. The phylogenetic position of the 'giant deer' Megaloceros giganteus. Letter in Nature 438, 850–853 (8 December 2005)

External links

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