Buckmasters Magazine

It’s in the Genes

It’s in the Genes

By Bob Humphrey

Are whitetails from Florida really the same as those from Saskatchewan?

Sheep hunters first procured the term Grand Slam from baseball to recognize those who had taken each of the North American sheep species recognized by the Boone and Crockett Club: Dall’s, Rocky Mountain bighorn, desert bighorn and Stone’s. Turkey hunters later followed suit, applying the term to taking each of the four recognized subspecies of North American wild turkey: Eastern, Rio Grande, Merriam’s and Osceola. Hunters have since applied the word slam to a variety of species with one glaring exception: the most popular big game animal in North America.

That didn’t set right with me, so about a dozen years ago, I proposed the concept of a white-tailed deer slam in a published article. A hunter could accomplish it by taking at least one of each of the recognized subspecies of whitetail.

The idea caught on like a match in a wind storm. However, the concept was resurrected last year by a group of like-minded individuals with a bit more marketing behind them (although I’m not sure how much attention they’ve gotten, either).

Regardless of how many hunters will actually set out to try to collect one of each, it’s interesting to know there are so many different varieties of whitetails. As to how many there actually are, that’s another story.

BY ANY OTHER NAME

Taxonomy is the science of naming and categorizing living organisms, and taxonomists agree about as often as deer hunters. That’s why, depending on which reference you consult, you could find anywhere between 20 and 40 different subspecies of white-tailed deer.

The differences between subspecies can be based on phenotypic (observable) and genotypic (genetic) characteristics. Phenotypic characteristics include size, coloration or other physical features. Genotypic properties are in the DNA.

Sometimes, subspecies are established from only a few animals and lack sufficient study to determine how distinct they really are.

Furthermore, most subspecies are not truly unique because they are not geographically isolated. Individuals from opposite ends of their respective ranges can look quite different. Meanwhile, those living in areas where two subspecies overlap and interbreed can be nearly indistinguishable.

The waters become muddier when you consider transplantation and re-stocking efforts. For example, between 1926 and 1992, Virginia received deer from 11 different states including Wisconsin, Iowa, Vermont and Alabama. Some biologists believe the radical differences in rut timing in Alabama (and other locations) are due to deer translocation. Still, we humans need to categorize things, so that is what I did.

For my original list 12 years ago, I started by consulting what I consider the most comprehensive and authoritative reference on the subject, Lowell K. Halls’ “White-tailed Deer Ecology and Management.”

To keep things manageable, I wanted to use state and provincial boundaries. I also lumped together similar subspecies occurring within a small geographic area. I came up with eight subspecies.

Much has changed since the original list, including some changes in whitetail distribution and the publication of a new reference source: David G. Hewitt’s “Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer.”

Also, my original list was based more on practicality and less on biology. Interestingly, the more recent effort came up with a remarkably similar list of eight.

What follows is an updated version of my original list of subspecies, with discussion on how groupings might be further modified for various reasons.

BOREAL

This is the largest of the subspecies, with adult males exceeding 300 pounds (live weight). Odocoileus virginianus borealis is a deer of the northern forests, typically referred to by most biologists and a good many hunters simply as borealis.

Despite what the taxonomists say, I would argue you could further divide this subspecies geographically by drawing a line roughly through the middle of Maine west, above New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the Great Lakes, and throughout central Minnesota.

The deer of Northern Maine, Minnesota and Ontario aren’t like those from southern New England and New York west into Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

They’re bigger-bodied, have darker coats, and their antlers tend to have more mass and less height/tine length. Of course, some of this could be a result of environment since deer tend to be darker in humid regions or predominantly coniferous forest areas.

Also, habitat is poorer and winters are longer, reducing antler growth. On the flip side, only the biggest and strongest survive years of severe winter, which is not necessarily the case for deer in the more southern borealis range.

Further, I find it hard to believe the subspecies suddenly changes along a distinct north/south line right down the middle of Minnesota, or that deer in Manitoba are not the same subspecies as those in Ontario.

You could also make a good case separating deer living in the forested areas (the northern half) of Alberta and Saskatchewan. More on that in a bit.

VIRGINIA

The subspecies for which whitetails were originally named, O. v. virginianus, is slightly smaller than its northern cousin and often a shade or two lighter in color.

As with borealis, this subspecies could easily be split differently. The transition from the southern borealis and northern virginianus ranges is much more subtle and diffuse than that illustrated on the maps.

For starters, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland deer are much more like Virginia and West Virginia deer than those in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois in terms of body size and antler growth.

At the opposite end, deer in the Deep South are generally smaller and have shorter-haired winter coats than those from Tennessee, Kentucky and the mid-Atlantic states. But we’ve got to draw a line somewhere.

OSCEOLA

Taxonomists divide this group into four smaller ones, splitting out those in southern and eastern Florida as the Florida or Seminole deer (O. v. seminolus). Those in the panhandle are called the Florida coastal or Osceola deer (O. v. osceola), and those from southern Louisiana and the Texas Gulf Coast are called the Avery Island deer (O. v. mcilhennyi). The diminutive Key deer (O. v. clavium) are restricted to the Florida Keys.

We could just call them all Florida deer, but Osceola sounds cooler, and it’s also one of the four subspecies for the wild turkey grand slam.

CENTRAL

The central or Kansas whitetail (O. v. macrourus) is separated from its eastern cousins by the Mississippi River, which is probably a sufficient barrier to limit, but not prevent, significant genetic interchange from one side to the other.

Meanwhile, the western boundary is probably related more to habitat since it’s where you run out of forest and into plains.

These deer, along with the southern borealis or northern Virginia races, seem to produce the most trophy class antlers. But, as our next groups demonstrates, trophies can turn up anywhere.

TEXAS

Here, again, you could probably split the Texas subspecies (O. v. texanus) into several more. Surprisingly, neither of the references I consulted did so.

Texas and Oklahoma deer are quite similar, while those in Kansas and Nebraska are bigger and resemble Iowa and Missouri deer more than Texas deer.

This larger grouping also includes the Carmen Mountain deer (O. v. carmini), which inhabits primarily mountainous areas of southwest Texas. They are smaller and shorter-tined than Texas deer. However, recent morphological studies show a gradual change in skull size from the larger Texas whitetail, through the Carmen Mountain deer to the smaller Coues’ deer, and intergradation of body size where ranges overlap.

COUES’

Named for American army surgeon, historian, ornithologist and author Elliott Coues (pronounced cows, not cooz) O. v. couesi has a very limited range in the southwestern U.S., but is somewhat more widespread in western Mexico.

It is found primarily in oak woodland habitat between 3,600 and 7,000 feet elevation. And, due to its relative geographic isolation (and hard lobbying by record book enthusiasts), it is considered one of the more legitimately distinct subspecies.

DAKOTA

I changed the name of this one from Montana on my 1999 list, to more accurately describe O. v. dacotensis, or, as he’s more commonly referred to, the Dakota whitetail. Those inhabiting the Dakotas and the lower elevation areas of the mountain states tend to be a bit slighter bodied and thinner antlered than boreal or central whitetails.

Interestingly, taxonomists consider Alberta and Saskatchewan whitetails to be Dakota rather than boreal, despite the behemoth proportions they sometimes achieve in both body and antler size.

One need only to look at the number of record book entries to see this group should probably be split between north and south, with those in the northern forests being thrown in with borealis.

NORTHWESTERN

The range maps have changed considerably in the Northwest since my initial Whitetail Slam article was published. The Northwestern or Northern Rocky Mountain whitetail (O. v. ochrourus) has been largely removed from all but the eastern fringe of Washington and northeastern Oregon, leaving a huge gap between it and the coastal Columbian (O. v. leucurus) whitetail. The former also extends well up into Canada, almost to the Alaskan border.

One could, and probably should, split these now geographically isolated subspecies.

CONCLUSION

In the final analysis maybe it doesn’t really matter how you break down whitetails or what you call them. They are, after all, one species.

And, just as subspecies distinctions occur across a continuum, so do differences in the species as a whole. Remember, those massive, heifer-sized whitetails from northern Maine are the same species as the tiny key deer, which is scarcely larger than a big bobcat.

The 113 1/8-inch Jimmie Ryan buck, the largest Coues’ deer in BTR records, is the same species as Ed Koberstein’s 218 3/8-inch Alberta monster.

There is incredible variation within the species, within subspecies and even sometimes within regional groups, which only serves to further emphasize that the white-tailed deer a remarkable and fascinating creature.

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This article was published in the October 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

Copyright 2021 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd