Jacksonville Zoo and GardensJacksonville Zoo and Gardens

Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

More to see. More to zoo.

Bio Facts: Deer, Florida Whitetailed

Deer, Florida Whitetailed
Click for larger version

Common Name:

Florida Whitetailed Deer

Scientific Name:

Odocoileus virginianus

Family:

Cervidae

Order:

Artiodactyla

Class:

Mammalia

Range:

Southern Canada, south to northern South America.  In the United States, the White-tailed Deer are found in every state except Alaska, California, Utah and possibly Nevada.  This species has also been introduced into Scandinavia and New Zealand.

Habitat:

Temperate to tropical deciduous forest

Description:

In summer the coat is a reddish-brown, and in winter a gray-brown.  The underside of the tail is completely white.  Only males have antlers with branches that point upward at regular intervals.  The main stem of the antler curves.  The 38 subspecies vary considerably in height and weight from 24” tall at the shoulder and only 44 lbs. for the Margarita Island race to 40” tall and over 300 lbs. for the Dakota race.

Life Expectancy:

Wild: 10-15 years.  Captivity: 14-18 years

Sexual Maturity:

May be as early as one year of age.

Diet:

Grasses, herbs, branches and leaves.  In the Zoo, they are fed grain, hay and browse.

Status:

Not listed

Behaviors:

Primarily nocturnal, White-tailed Deer are also active at dusk and dawn.  They are browsers (eating tree and shrub leaves, branches and fruits) and grazers (eating tender grasses and herbs).

If alarmed, the White-tailed Deer bounds quickly away into dense vegetation with its tail raised.  This “white-flag” signals danger and perhaps assists the group to re-form.  It also enables fawns to follow their running mothers.

During the winter months, the White-tailed Deer gathers in small herds of not much more than a dozen of the same sex.  A usually solitary animal, a small group consists of an adult female, her yearling female offspring and her recent fawns.

Fall and early winter is considered the breeding season or “rut.”  During this time, fully antlered males fight to gain access to females in estrous.  After mating, the successful male will defend her from other males also seeking to copulate with the receptive female.  A male’s breeding success is determined by the number of receptive females that he gains access to throughout his lifetime.  Females, on the other hand, are highly unlikely to lack access to males.  Their reproductive success is more dependent on their ability to successfully raise their offspring.

After a gestation period of approximately 7 months, a female gives birth to a single fawn or twins (triplets occur, but are less frequent than twins).  Newborns have a spotted natal coat and stay hidden for the first few weeks.  The mother returns to her calf only to suckle it.  During this time the mother consumes most of the bodily wastes excreted from the newborn to eliminate any smells that may lead a predator to its hiding place.  After a few weeks, the calf is strong enough to follow its foraging mother.

Adaptations:

Senses of hearing, smell and sight are particularly acute and used to detect predators.  When feeding, the White-tailed Deer’s sense of smell and hearing may be the first to detect danger because vision may be obscured by dense vegetation.

White-tailed Deer are very agile and quick.  They can jump an 8’ fence and reach speeds of 40 mph.  Their cryptic camouflage also works to conceal them.  And, they can freeze like statues, disappearing into their habitat background.  It is said that a person can pass within 3’ of a White-tailed Deer and not see it.

Males grow antlers only to fight other males for breeding rights.  The number of tines (points) cannot determine the age of a male.  The growing antler is covered with a “velvet” skin that is soft to the touch.  This skin layer is full of blood vessels nourishing the growing bone underneath.  Once the antler is full-grown, the velvety skin layer is sloughed off.  The growth rate of the antlers is remarkable.  In some deer, this rate may be as much as 4” in a single day.

Special Interest:

The genus name Odocoileusis from the Greek words odous, meaning “tooth,” and koilus, meaning “hollow,” referring to the hollow teeth of deer.

The White-tailed Deer can trace its ancestry back to the Miocene Era, some 15 to 20 million years ago.  This group of animals (Deer) has survived long after many of their related and unrelated species that also evolved during this time disappeared.

It is often said that the population of deer in North America is higher today than it has ever been.  This is a difficult statement to either prove or disprove.  The deer’s success can be attributed to its tremendous adaptability.  Given just a minimal amount of protection from overhunting, the White-tailed Deer can thrive in close association with humans.

The White-tailed Deer has an incredible ability to increase its numbers rapidly when population numbers are well below the natural carrying capacity of an area.  For example, in 1928, two males and four females were placed in a 1,146-acre enclosure in Livingston County, Michigan.  Five years later, a deer drive netted 160 deer within the enclosure.

The White-tailed Deer is similar in appearance to the Mule Deer or Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus).  The Mule Deer is found in western North America south through Central America and inhabits grassland and woodland areas.

Folklore:

A Cherokee legend tells how the deer received its antlers.  In the beginning, Deer had a smooth head and was very fast.  Rabbit, too, was a fast runner.  One day the animals decided to have a contest to determine which of the two was faster.  They laid out the race path through thickets and trees and fashioned a pair of antlers as a prize for the winner.  Rabbit asked if he could look at the path before the race, and the animals agreed.  He took so much time, however, that they sent a messenger to see what he was up to.  The messenger found Rabbit cutting down vines and shrubs, making himself a clearer path on which to run.  The animals considered this cheating, and they awarded the antlers to Deer, who has worn them proudly ever since.

When the Cherokee had to travel during harsh winter months, they rubbed their feet in warm ashes and sang a song to acquire powers from the four animals whose feet are never frostbitten – opossum, wolf, fox and deer.

Conservation:

Two main factors threaten deer populations – restriction and modification of their habitat by human activity, and hunting.  Nine species and several subspecies of deer are considered endangered.

The Florida Key Deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) is the rarest of the subspecies.  Habitat loss, hunting and hurricanes had reduced its population number to only 30 remaining by 1949.  The Key Deer can be found in the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key.  Today, their main threat to survival is the automobile.

Jacksonville Zoo History:

The white-tailed deer in our collection were found orphaned or injured in the wild. Due to the intense human contact needed to nurse them to health, they cannot be returned to the wild.  They have lost their natural fear of humans and will be cared for by our keepers for the rest of their lives.  We know that Florida white-tailed deer were held here as early as 1948, but the Zoo must certainly have held specimens much earlier than that.  This species has bred here.