Deer are awesome. Humans savor them as food, find aesthetic pleasure in their appearance, and even worship them. Deer hunting is or was practiced in almost every nation and culture, and varies from sport of kings to staple food subsistence. Venison is not only delicious, but one of the healthiest kinds of meat for humans. Deer specialize in food with high nutritional value, and so prefer young, freshly changed landscapes.
That is to say, when there’s a change of landscape, e.g. by a forest fire or logging, deer might disappear from the area, but will almost certainly make a spectacular comeback a few years later as fresh and nutritious vegetation grows. This quality attracts them to human habitat, and has made them an indispensable element of American life.
Familiarity, however, breeds contempt. There will still be Americans hunters for whom there are only two kinds of deer – antlered and antlerless, and surprisingly many people can’t answer even the simplest questions on the animal, such as “How many kinds of deer there is in North America”. By the way, can you? Try yourself.
How many kinds of deer are there in North America?
Take your pick.
Congratulations! You are correct!
What? – I hear you say – But you can’t possibly know my answer! How can you tell if I’m right and wrong? Is it some kind of IT trickery?
No, not quite. Obviously, the answer to the question “How many kinds of deer there are in North America” depends on how you define “deer”, and how you define “kind”. So, let’s see how it works out.
THE TALE OF TAILS: WHITETAIL, MULE AND BLACKTAIL DEER
In British English the word “deer” usually refers to red deer. In America the default “deer” is a whitetail, or one of the two kinds of deer that resemble it in size and weight – mule deer, and blacktail deer.
That’s easy to explain. Moose, elk and caribou of North America have close relatives on the other side of the Pacific. East Siberian moose are nearly indistinguishable from Alaska moose, and can be considered the same subspecies. Siberian wapiti and North American elk are a bit more different, but still close enough. Caribou covers the whole Arctic area, and have a theoretical opportunity to share their genes across the whole population. But whitetails and mule deer don’t have Asian or European cousins; they are as American as the Grand Canyon and Ford Mustang.
The relationship between these species, however, is as complicated as if they were characters of a Mexican telenovela. Regular classification has it that whitetail and mule deer are separate species, while blacktail is a subspecies of the mule deer. Genetic tests, however, complicated the picture.
From analysis of mitochondrial DNA (a piece of genome that the organism inherits from the mother), it looks like the white-tailed deer evolved first (as in 3.5 million years ago, making it the oldest existing deer species). Then some part of its population became isolated somewhere on the Pacific coast and evolved into black-tailed deer. Then black-tailed deer began to colonize the continent, met with whitetails, hybridized with them, and the hybrids evolved into mule deer. So it’s the mule deer that should be considered a subspecies of blacktail, not the other way round.
If it seems too much for you, remember that it’s little more than speculation based on a study of just one piece of gene, and doesn’t explain everything. For example, the fact that black-tails and mule deer readily mate, while whitetail and mule deer hybrids in the wild are rare. Further studies may result in a different story. Until then, we’ll write down that the minimum number of “kinds of deer” in North America is three: mule, black-tailed and white-tailed.
HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHITETAIL, MULE AND BLACK-TAILED DEER
It’s essential to know the difference between these kinds of deer, especially where you can meet two species but legally hunt only one. That mostly refers to whitetail and mule deer, whose ranges overlap in many parts of the US, Canada and Mexico. Fortunately, they’re relatively easy to tell apart, and every experienced hunter knows how.
The biggest difference, of course, is that part of the white-tailed deer’s body that gave it its name. An escaping deer raises the tail, and shows a bright flag of white fur, that is used as an alarm signal to other deer. Mule deer doesn’t have anything anywhere near so flashy. On the underside their tails are more beige or creamy in color, while on the outside a mule deer’s tail is longer and narrower than a whitetail’s, and features a black tip.
When the animals are not alarmed, it’s the head that you should focus on. Mule deer can be recognized by its large ears that earned them their name – to early European settlers they resembled those of a mule. A mule deer’s face has also a bit more of the white color than a whitetail’s. Antlers of the species are also different. Whitetail antlers have one main beam, from which minor points separate – in the typical antler formation it resembles a hair comb. Mule deer antlers fork – that is, each beam is divided into two equally sized points, then each of these points branches again. However, the deer have so many typical and atypical antler forms that identification by antlers alone isn’t too reliable.
The species also differ in behavior, which is explained by the fact that they prefer different landscapes. Whitetails are more of creatures of the forest, while mule deer tend to like more open ground, even though that’s not a given. Behavior and calling in the rut is also different (which might explain why they seldom interbreed in the wild). And perhaps the most conspicuous is the mule deer’s “slot” – a characteristic gait that’s actually jumping with all four legs at the same time.
Telling a mule deer from a black-tail is a whole different story. Blacktails are smaller, and dwell on the Pacific coast, while mule deer are bigger (the biggest of the three) and inhabit more open ground to the east of the Cascade Range. Their behavior is similar, and they often interbreed in the wild. The only readily visible external characteristic that tells them apart is the tail. A mule deer tail has a black tip, while a blacktail’s is black all over. Fortunately, these deer seldom share habitat, so you’re not likely to find yourself in this situation.
OTHER MEMBERS OF THE DEER FAMILY
The “default” deer for English-speaking North Americans are whitetails, black-tailed deer and mule deer. But the deer family doesn’t end there. Caribou is a deer. Heck, even moose is a deer! Moving into Mexico, we find another species known as brocket deer, a small creature with males wearing short, unbranched antlers. All these, together with whitetails and mule deer, are included into subfamily Capreolinae, also known as “New World deer”.
Elk stands alone; it is closely related to the European red deer (some list it as a subspecies of red deer), and together with such species as barasingha, sambar and sika deer, belong to subfamily Cervinae, or “Old World deer”. It crossed the continental divide between Alaska and the mainland US and Canada rather late, circa 10,000 year ago, together with grizzly bears and humans. But the immigrant status doesn’t prevent it from being listed as an American deer.
So, counting mule and black-tailed deer as one species, and adding up whitetail, brocket, elk, caribou, and moose, we work the number of North American deer kinds to six!
Mule deer is a subspecies of black-tailed deer (or the other way round), but not the only one. In fact, currently biologists officially recognize two subspecies of black-tailed deer – Columbian and Sitka – and eight subspecies of mule deer: California, Cedros/Cerros Island, desert/burro, southern mule deer, Rocky Mountain, Inyo, peninsular (Baja), and Tiburon Island.
White-tailed deer subspecies are even more numerous. At one point, biologists recognized almost as many varieties as Heinz tomato sauce, but DNA testing reduced them to 31. Those are: Acapulco, northern, Carmen Mountains, Chiriqui (Panama), Florida Keys (a.k.a Key), Coues’ (a.k.a. Arizona or fantail), Dakota (a.k.a northern plains), Hilton Head Island, Idaho, Columbian, Kansas, Avery Island, Mexican, Miquihuan, Chiapas, Blackbeard Island, Oaxaca, northwestern (a.k.a northern Rocky Mountains), Florida coastal, Coiba Island, Florida, Sinaloa, Bulls Island, Texas, Mexican lowland, rain forest, Central American (Costa Rica, Nicaragua and adjacent states), Hunting Island, northern Veracruz, Virginia (a.k.a southern) and Yucatán.
Some of them are endangered, such as the smallest subspecies of whitetails, the Florida Keys deer. Others are especially coveted by hunters. One of them is the Coues deer, a kind of desert whitetail that is hunted in Mexico and the American Southwest. Then, there’s the Sitka deer, a subspecies of black-tailed deer that dwells on the North Pacific coast of British Columbia, Alaska and a number of islands including the Kodiak. With the exception of grizzly hunting ban in British Columbia, this is a prime destination for bear hunters. Many of those don’t mind adding a small, but uncommon deer to their quarry list.
Some say there’s too many, and a number of subspecies should be dropped from the list, but we go by the official numbers. Don’t forget to include 4 subspecies of brocket deer, 3 of moose, 5 of elk, and 5 species of caribou, and you get 58 subspecies of the deer family in North America.
DEER AND DEER TROPHIES
Trophy books identify even more kinds of deer. For example, biologists identify three subspecies of North American moose. Trophy books list four. This is because trophy books are hunting centered. One population of an animal may be absolutely identical to another, and yet have smaller antler size (simply because the area they inhabit is not as rich as nutrients essential for antler growth). An exceptional trophy from that area will not equal in size an average one from a different location with better nutrient supply. On the other hand, one area may be less accessible than another, and it would take more work to get a good trophy from there. Trophy books try to level the hunters’ chances of entry, and that interest doesn’t coincide with biological data.
SCI trophy books divide North American deer trophies across geographic locations, and further divide trophies from some of them into typical and non-typical, free range and estate. There are 6 categories for black-tailed deer (Baja, Columbia and Sitka), 12 for mule deer (mule deer proper, desert, Rocky Mountain, and Tiburon island), and 36 for whitetails (Anticosti, Carmen Mountain, Coues, Columbia, Mexican Central Plateau, Mexican Gulf Coast, Mexican Pacific Coast, Mexican Texanus, Mid-Western, Northeastern, Northwestern, Southeastern, and Texas). All in all that makes 54 categories for North American black-tailed, mule and white-tailed deer. With 7 categories for caribou, 11 for elk, 4 for moose, and 4 for North American brocket deer, it adds up to 80 North American deer trophies. So, from the point of view of a trophy hunter, there are 80 kinds of deer in North America
This story doesn’t include exotic varieties of deer introduced to North America you can also book hunts for on our online marketplace, including axis deer and fallow deer
ALL OF THE ABOVE
As you can see, there are 3 kinds of “deer” in general, 6 members of the deer family, 58 officially recognized subspecies of deer, and 80 trophy categories of deer in North America. So, whatever number you selected, you were correct! That’s what we try to achieve here. BookYourHunt.com is focused on creating a win-win situation for both hunters and outfitters. That’s why no matter what you think about the number of North American deer, you win.
WHY DON’T YOU BOOK YOUR DEER HUNT TODAY?
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Thank you for this very informative article. The number of subspecies was amazing.
I live in Texas where white tail are plentiful. One time, my mother and I came across a herd of Mule deer. She got so excited at seeing them because they had been gone from our area for awhile.
And few years ago, I saw a black tailed doe. She was beautiful.
I assume she escaped from a game preserve. I never saw a blacktail buck.
But last year, she had a black tail fawn.
Again, thank you for this article.
It is surprising to me that the deer in the Sonora desert -the size of sm-med dogs- are not considered a “kind.” I would have expected such since they look & act very differently from Whitetails, not just in size, but also antlers.