By Jim Heffelfinger
We are inherently interested in freakish and bizarre things. Roadside attractions, circus freak sideshows, and Ripley’s Believe-it-or-not have been a big part of our culture. With the advent of the Internet we are now bombarded with every weird thing imaginable. When our interest in deer and our fascination for the strange collide, everyone seems to sit up and take notice. There is naturally a lot of variation in nature, but occasionally we see something that is beyond the normal range of variation. Whitetails have their fair share of weirdness. With oddities in color and texture of their fur, bizarre teeth, and of course strange antlers, we seem to have no shortage of things to marvel at.
A hair different
Several variations of the normal hair color have been reported in various areas. Albino deer are the most striking of the color variations reported. Albinism is a recessive genetic condition, which means if both parents possess this rare genetic trait, some of the offspring will be albinos. Albino deer lack melanin pigment in their cells so that all hair, hooves, and skin are without color pigments. These deer have white hair, pink eyes, pink noses, cream or pink hooves, and even white antler velvet. The pink color is caused by underlying blood vessels being visible through the non-pigmented tissue. Albinos also can’t see well because of the lack of pigment in their eyes that helps block sunlight. The dried blood from the velvet and the tannins in tree bark still stain the fresh antlers like normal bucks. In fact, when the antlers are hardened and polished they are the only things that appear the same as a normal-colored buck.
Many states have laws that prohibit the harvest of albino deer. Texas allows the harvest of albinos, but they are very rare. Legend has it that White Deer, Texas, (in Carson County) owes its name to a story about a Native American watching an “albino” deer drinking out of the nearby creek of the same name.
Many white “albino” deer are not truly albino. They may be partially (piebald) or totally white, but do not have the characteristic pink eyes and skin. Deer that are totally white, but have normal-colored eyes, skin, and hooves are called leucistic. Whereas albinos do not produce the melanin pigment, leucistic deer have melanin, but there is a problem with the deposition of the pigment in the skin and hair. The genetic mechanisms behind leucistic deer are not as clear as albinos. The mating of 2 pure white leucistic deer can result in normal-colored fawns.
Piebald, or “pinto,” deer are partially or mostly white, but are not albinos. The piebald condition is also a genetic abnormality whereby the deer produces melanin, but it is deposited in the skin and hair in an inconsistent way. These deer can have pigmented hooves, eyes, and skin; lacking pigment only in some random areas of their pelt. Besides varying degrees of white fur, piebald deer commonly have other genetic abnormalities such as, short legs, deformed feet, a bowed nose, arching spine, short jawbones, and oddly formed internal organs. Some are apparently healthy as evidenced by the piebald taken by James Curtis in East Texas in November of 2008. His buck, which gained Internet fame as the “Calico Buck,” scored 138 5/8 and tipped the scales at 195 pounds.
On the other end of the spectrum are deer that produce too much melanin pigment and that results in very dark or black fur. This coloration is even rarer than “white” deer, and it would seem such an individual would be at a great disadvantage during the hot summer months. Melanism is simply the occurrence of an excess of dark pigmentation. There is actually a wide range of shades and variations of darkness that all fall under the category of melanism. An area of Texas including Hays, Travis, Comal, Caldwell, and Guadalupe counties has the highest concentration of “dark deer” anywhere in the world. Even though this pelage anomaly is very rare worldwide, researchers John Baccus and John Posey surveyed this area and found 21 percent of the deer in the center of the cluster were abnormally dark to some degree. The percentage of dark deer lessened as they surveyed away from ground zero of the “black hole”, but the incidence of dark deer was still 8.5 percent for their entire survey area.
Woolley, maned, and spotted
There are other fur anomalies that are much less common and most of us will never see them. Some deer have been reported with unusually woolly coats like a domestic sheep. In 1928 a biologist in Pennsylvania documented a deer that had silky thick wool on its back and sides that seemed to be a cross between the long thick guard hairs and the fine wavy underfur. This gave a woolly appearance to the otherwise-normal animal.
More common, but still very rare, is the appearance of a horse-like mane on a deer. Pronghorn antelope have manes, but we don’t expect to see them on a whitetail. A very detailed report of many abnormal conditions in Michigan deer documented 2 deer with manes that were 1 inch high and 6-7 inches long. Al Brothers and Murphy Ray, Jr. actually reported that it is “common” in some areas of Texas to find deer with manes running down the back of their neck.
Fawns normally retain their spots for 40-80 days, but in unusual cases the spots may stick around for years. Once in a while an adult deer has fawn-like spots. More commonly it may retain just a double row of spots – one on each side of the spine. Some deer may have more, even continuing down the sides. Sometimes this generates rumors of an axis deer/whitetail hybrid, but there is no record of white-tailed deer crossing with any of the “Old World” deer like axis or fallow. No one has offered a good explanation for these spots. I guess we can count that as one of the many strange and unexplained things that make wild animals so interesting.
Deer have no upper incisors; the eight lower incisor-like teeth are pressed against a hard upper pad, or palate, to pinch and tear off plant parts. This confuses some people who look in the mouth of a deer and wonder what happened to the upper teeth. This toothless grin is shared by other ungulates as well, such as cattle, bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, etc. Elk have a pair of upper canine teeth sometimes called “buglers” or “ivories.” They are canines just like the tusks of an elephant, but whether they are “ivory” or not is a matter of semantics (all teeth can be considered ivory). Upper canines are absent in deer except in rare cases. The 8 lower “incisors” are actually 6 incisors with an outside pair of lower canines. Through evolution, these lower canines have moved forward in the jaw to look and function as incisors. The upper canines grow out of the maxillary bones of the skull and are evolutionary “throw-backs” from a time when deer ancestors had well-pronounced fangs. When present, these canines are not large, but generally small peg-like teeth just breaking the gumline. Many may be missed because some canines are too small to break through the gums and are not visible by simply looking in the mouth. In populations where these teeth have been documented, 0.05 to 18 percent of the deer had upper canines.
Antlered does and antlerless bucks
Antlered does show up in the harvest every year somewhere in the U.S. It is certainly possible for a doe to grow antlers under some situations, but some of the antlered “does” that are reported were actually bucks with deformed genitalia. These bucks look like does when the hunter turns them over, but the internal organs tell a different story. A look at the internal organs is crucial when inspecting an antlered deer of questionable gender because there are 3 different types of animals that are commonly referred to as antlered does: 1) hermaphrodites, 2) cryptorchid psuedohermaphrodites [deformed bucks], and 3) true antlered does.
Hermaphrodites are deer that possess both male and female sex organs. They usually have an ovary on one side and an internal testicle on the other. These animals are not capable of reproducing and, because of the presence of testosterone, usually carry out a normal antler cycle. Although hermaphrodites may have polished antlers during the fall, the presence of the ovary sometimes results in enough estrogen to offset the effects of the testosterone and cause the velvet to be retained.
Cryptorchid psuedohermaphrodites are not really does at all, but rather bucks with testicles that never descended into the scrotum. They remain inside the body cavity encased in fatty tissue. The penis is tucked in a fold of skin and looks very much like a female deer. These animals usually have polished antlers because of the presence of testosterone produced by the internal testicles.
Most true antlered does have fully functional female reproductive tracts. These does can breed, become pregnant, and successfully raise fawns. What actually initiates the antler development in these does is still somewhat of a mystery, but ovarian tumors or skull injuries can initiate antler growth. Because of the lack of increasing testosterone levels in the fall, true antlered does in the wild do not have polished antlers. They never lose their velvet and the antlers are often deformed, lacking basal burrs, and permanent (not shed).
Reports of antlerless bucks are well documented in red deer and mule deer, but less so in whitetails. We are not talking about bucks that have shed their antlers, but those that never grew any. In 2004, Jim Shulin of Bedford, Texas, killed a buck in Burnet County that had no trace of antler bases, but other reports in whitetails are rare. Mature antlerless bucks can breed and will even fight with antlered bucks. Very poor nutrition in the male’s first year can cause this condition in red deer, but other cases are difficult to explain.
Not right in the head
When talking about antlers, the word “weird” is always a good thing. One of the things that make antlers interesting is the infinite variety of shapes, colors, textures, and unique characteristics. Discussion of abnormal points such as “kickers,” “stickers,” “cheaters,” drop tines, forks, double brows, and triple beams consume many hours of discussion among deer enthusiasts. Because of the interest in nontypical antlers, much research has been directed at the causes of antler abnormalities. Many factors cause or affect the expression of weird antler abnormalities.
Some odd points and abnormalities are the result of the animal’s genotype, or genetic blueprint. Antler characteristics are inherited from the buck’s parents. A non-typical buck will produce a disproportionate number of offspring with nontypical points. Remember that for each fawn born, the doe contributed half of the genetic material. Because of this, does that had nontypical fathers may consistently produce buck fawns that grow up to be non-typicals. Palmated antlers, which are “webbed” like a moose, and drop tines are examples of characteristics that seem to be genetically inherited in whitetails.
Injuries probably account for most of the weirdest deer heads. Serious breaks to the antler tines or beams are always going to cause the rack to be misshapen. In cases where this happens while the antler is still growing, it may stay attached to the rack and re-fuse with it, leaving a hanging tine with a large rounded tip. These bulb-like, dark tips are from the pooling of blood at the bottom of the broken tine.
Injury to the pedicle (base) nearly always causes abnormalities. Extensive trauma to the pedicle before growth begins (or soon after) produces freakish racks or double main beams. Antlers can arise from places other than the bases in some unusual circumstances. This is almost always in the form of injury to the skull. Most extra antlers are found on the frontal bones (some growing from the side of a normal pedicle), but unwelcomed and unsightly antlers can also grow from the nose or the top or bottom of the eye orbit following injury.
Injury to a large skeletal structure such as a broken leg bone often causes a misshapen antler the next year. If it is a front leg that is injured, either side of the rack may be affected, however, if the rear leg is injured the opposite side of the rack is usually malformed. Studies at the Kerrville facility by Rodney Marburger and others showed that amputation of a rear leg stunted the opposite side of the rack in all six experimental animals.
When talking about body injuries there is probably none more traumatic than castration. Bucks that are castrated while in the hardened antler stage will drop their antlers within a few weeks because of the sharply falling testosterone level. Bucks castrated after they drop their hardened antlers, will grow new antlers the next year, but they will never be polished or shed because of the lack of sufficient hormone levels.
The antler cycle is incredibly complicated and involves an intricate coordination between several male hormones (not just testosterone) and compounds that stimulate antler growth. Abnormal fluctuations of hormones can cause irregular antler cycles or abnormal antler conditions. Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) can also cause hemorrhaging in the testicles or other areas that disrupt the proper production and circulation of male hormones. EHD can result in incomplete hardening of the antler tips as well because of damage to the velvet’s blood vessels before antler growth is complete.
Embracing the weird
Even though we can categorize all these conditions neatly under discrete subtitles, there are variations on some of these themes. Particularly: melanistic, “white deer,” antlered “does,” and weird antler oddities that seem to appear in an endless array of variation. There are a few cases of unusual hard-antlered does and even blue-eyed “albinos” that are somewhat of a mystery. With today’s Internet, and the speed at which weird deer pictures zip around, we are documenting a much larger percentage of the oddities that show up in the harvest each year. Interest in these oddballs is not going to subside because of our ever-present fascination with things that are out of the ordinary. We certainly can’t explain them all, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the curveballs that nature throws at us.