For some, deer are a topic of great seasonal interest. But deer are fascinating creatures year round. Although reindeer make headlines in the United States during December they aren’t the only Cervids with some pretty neat physical traits that inspire curious questions.
But first, what is a deer? To know the answer to that question, you’ll need to know a little bit about taxonomy, or the scientific classification of different organisms into levels. Deer are in the family Cervidae, which is the category of hoofed, ruminant mammals on the taxonomic hierarchy.
There are three subfamilies of Cervidae: Cervinae, which includes elk; Capreolinae, which includes many common deer and moose; and Hydropotinae, made up of only one species of deer, mentioned in this list. These subfamilies make up the 47 species of deer in the Cervidae family, and these five examples are just a small sample of the incredible and diverse range of deer species in the world.
The Megaloceros giganeus, nicknamed the Irish Elk (though it was neither Irish nor an elk), was the largest species of deer to ever exist. Standing a bit above the average moose and with antlers about twelve feet wide, this massive beast lived in the Pleistocene era and went extinct over 10,000 years ago during the most recent ice age.
- Water deer
The only deer in the subfamily Hydropotinae, Chinese and Korean water deer stand out due to their large protruding tusks. Aptly nicknamed the “vampire deer,” these Cervids use their fangs to compete with other males for mates and fend off predators. However, they also have adorable fuzzy, rounded ears, and only stand a couple feet tall, which detracts a bit from the tusk intimidation.
The southern and northern pudú are the world’s smallest species of deer, standing at just 13-17 inches tall and 33 inches long and weighing around 25 lbs. This tiny ruminant lives in rainforests in southern Chile and southwestern Argentina. Males have short, spiky antlers that they shed annually. Pudús are a near threatened species due to the destruction of their native rainforests, but efforts are being made to better track and preserve the population.
The muntjac, another small deer standing around 15-25 inches tall, is also known as the “barking deer” due to its part-goat, part-dog-like cry. Muntjacs are native to parts of Asia, and live in areas with dense vegetation. The males also have tusks similar to the Chinese water deer in addition to short, sharp antlers.
Did you know that caribou and reindeer are different names for the same deer? According to the San Diego Zoo, “In Europe, they are called reindeer. In North America, the name reindeer is used when referring to Eurasian populations and the name caribou to refer to wild populations in North America.” A classic holiday symbol, both male and female reindeer have sets of beautiful antlers that can weigh up to 20 lbs.
Speaking of reindeer, you’ll have the chance to meet this incredible ruminant yourself at WonderLab’s Reindeer Reserve! On Saturday, Dec. 12 and Sunday, Dec. 13, you can get up close to live reindeer and learn more about how they thrive in the icy north regions of the world. Tickets are $5 for non-members and $3 for members. Come equipped with your new knowledge of the Cervidae family and get ready to meet an amazing deer!
About the Author: Sophia Holt-Wilson is a tiny deer enthusiast and senior at Indiana University in the Media School with a specialization in advertising management. She is the Public Relations Intern at WonderLab for the 2020-2021 academic year. While writing this article, she lost count of the number of times she said “awww” while looking at pictures of the water deer and pudús.