If you want to take a peek at the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus clavium, the Key deer, you’re going to have to take a trip.
But, we wouldn’t advise traveling during hurricane season.
The smallest subspecies of white-tailed deer can only be found on about 25 islands in the Lower Keys at the southern end of the Florida Keys, which encompass about 1,700 islands.
Most Key deer can be found on Big Pine Key, home of the National Key Deer Refuge. The refuge, established in 1953, set aside 9,000 acres of land to preserve Key deer and their habitat. Managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Deer Alliance played a significant role in establishing the Refuge.
The outlying areas where Key Deer can be found are only accessible by boat or sea planes, and the areas where they can be found has been shrinking.
Like other whitetails, Key deer have similar pelage, or coat colors, of reddish brown and grays. Bucks grow antlers, but are usually spikes until their second year, and weigh between 55 and 75 pounds.
Adult does weigh less, and fawns weigh 2 to 3 pounds at birth. Typically, does give birth to a single fawn. The Key deer’s stature is truly small, and they measure only 24 to 36 inches at their shoulder.
Things that distinguish Key deer, besides size and number, from other whitetails include a high saltwater tolerance and low birth rates. As you would expect, they can swim, an important skill as they look for freshwater.
Key deer were once found in all types of ecosystems in the Florida Keys—pine forests, mangroves and wetlands, but their range has diminished.
Mangrove trees are an important part of their diet; however, USFWS researchers have found, through time, the diminutive deer have lost their fear of humans, which has made them more vulnerable.
Although people are discouraged from feeding wildlife, many do illegally, and it has created a dangerous situation for the deer. Rather than foraging, deer gather in small areas increasing exposure to disease as well as cars or trucks.
Key deer populations were decimated by the late 1940, and by the early 1950s they were near extinction: only 25 Key deer remained. However, creating the Refuge protected the deer from human disturbances allowed the deer population to recover slowly.
Currently, there are about 1,000 Key deer.
They remain listed as an endangered species, with habitat loss, car accidents, disease, illegal feeding by humans and loss of mangroves as the primary threats.
If your travels take you that far south, be sure to visit the National Key Deer Refuge Center, but if that’s not possible, you can read more about the Center’s work with Key deer here.
– The Key Deer’s Best Friend
Did you know the first manager of the National Key Deer Refuge was a lawman who found unique ways to discourage illegal hunting and hunters? Read more about Jack Watson and his innovative and entertaining approaches to saving the Key deer from extinction.
Resources: United State Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Deer Alliance.