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various deer antlers

Types of Deer and How To Tell The Difference

You’re driving down the road when you see a deer in headlights… But, what kind of deer is it? After all, there’s more to deer than just antlers.

Otherwise known as Cervidae, the deer family is pretty broad. In fact, there are 43 species of deer.

But with members ranging from whitetail, elk, reindeer, red deer, and every dear deer in-between, how are you supposed to tell the difference?

Let’s explore the fundamental differences between 9 of the types of deer you’re likely to either encounter or hear about.

1. Whitetail Deer

whitetail buck in velvet
The whitetail is one of the most sought after deer by hunters in North America.

This medium-sized mammal is native to the Americas, weighing in at anywhere from under 100 lbs to over 300 lbs.

Doe (female deer) can weigh anywhere between under 100 lbs to 200 lbs.

White-tailed deer can sometimes be challenging to identify at first glance, as their coats change color seasonally. They can be found with reddish-brown coats under the summer sun, trading these in for more grayish-brown substitutes as winter closes in.

The white-tailed deer, usually referred to simply as the whitetail, earned its name thanks to the prominent white marking under its tail. (If a whitetail deer has piebaldism, it can lead to some unique and stunning markings.)

While the whitetail’s tail is primarily used to warn fellow deer when danger is near, this white marking also helps explorers and hunters distinguish the whitetail from other deer.

This particular deer is also unique in terms of body language. Whitetails are known to showcase various postures, including the “ear drop” to send other deer away, the “hard look” to show anger, the “antler threat” to display dominance, and the fighting stance to prepare for battle, so to speak.

During the breeding season, or “rut,” bucks (males) can often be found making violent antler contact, testing each other’s strength for the right to breed receptive does. This battle normally ends when one deer is too tired to continue but can also end in the death of one or both bucks.

Sometimes when fighting, bucks can get their antlers entangled with each other, unable to break apart. In these instances, bucks can even die if they cannot get separated.

Whitetail deer are a highly sought after game animal by rifle hunters as well as bowhunters.

2. Blacktail Deer

blacktail bucks in field
Blacktail deer have distinctive black tail with a white patch underneath.

Normally found across the hills of Central California and the mountainous region of Alaska, the Columbian black-tailed deer is a sub-species of the mule deer.

The blacktail is slightly smaller than most mule deer or his white-tailed cousin, though. Like white-tailed deer, blacktail also change their coat colors, from a reddish-brown in summer to a brownish-gray in winter.

Blacktail are normally easy to spot by their ears, which move independently. This particular deer’s broad tail is totally black or dark brown at the top, with a white patch underneath. This would make him easy to confuse with the white-tail, were it not for his distinctive dark brown antlers with symmetrical branching and easily-identifiable stocky bodies with long, slender legs.

Black-tailed deer weigh in at about 130 pounds, but can reach closer to 200. While blacktail males have antlers, their female counterparts do not – and male fawns start growing antlers at about 6-8 months old.

Blacktail can normally be found in forested mountains on the pacific coast, where the climate is mild and cool with plenty of rainfall. Blacktail live off a diet of acorns, fungi, lichen, nuts, berries, and shrubs

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coues deer buck
Coues deer bucks have main beams that curve forward.

3. Coues Deer

This specific kind of white-tailed deer is among the most commonly found across the South-Eastern mountains of Arizona, especially during the rainy summertime.

Coues can be found in woodlands where there is plenty of oak, chaparral, and pine.

Coues deer are known for their distinctive antlers. The coues’ mean beam curves forward, and more mature coues have 3-4 tines on each side.

When it comes to coat, the coues is normally grayish-brown with specks of “salt and pepper,” and white patches underneath. The coues’ most distinguishing trait is his long and broad tail, which is grayish-red-black on top and white underneath.

Coues deer are normally quite small, and fawns are known to stay close to their mothers for longer than other deer.

4. Mule Deer

mule deer bucks in field
Mule deer bucks have distinctive white patches on the backs of their hips and males have forked antlers.

Mule deer are commonly spotted in deserts across North and South America, flaunting large ears that first granted them their name.

The mule deer’s tail appears to have been dipped in black ink, and his antlers are forked.

You’ll also find a distinctive white patch on either hind side, which easily differentiates the mule deer from any other deer in America. The mule deer sports a grayish-brown coat, making it easier for him to adapt to his unique climate in desert areas.

Mule deer, often referred to as muleys, normally range from about 3 feet tall at the shoulders to a towering 7 feet (including antlers), weighing up to 280 pounds.

In addition to the whitetail, the mule deer is also one of the types of deer sought after by hunters.

5. Red Deer

These large land mammals (Britain’s largest, in fact) can weigh anywhere from 90 kg to 190 kg (around 100 to 225 lbs). They stand up to 1.37 meters (4-1/2 ft) tall at the shoulder, and can normally be found in wooded lowland areas.

red stag
A male red deer is called a “stag.” The stag’s antlers are branched.

But, the part of this deer’s anatomy that sets it apart from other deer so distinctly, is its noticeably large head and wide-spaced brown eyes.

A male red deer is called a stag. His antlers are perhaps his most distinctive feature – highly branched with multiple points on each.

The red deer’s antler branches increase with age at an angle. Another unmistakable trait of the red deer are its hoof prints, otherwise known as “slots.” These are often mistaken for sheep or goat’s marks.

Red deer are mostly found in forest habitats across England and Southern Scotland, and graze on grass and dwarf shrubs. They generally breed from the end of September to November.

6. Chital / Axis Deer

The Chital Deer, otherwise known as the axis deer, boasts unique characteristics that set it apart – one of which is the white spots that never go away. These speckled dots stay in place from youth through to adulthood, normally covering the entire body and spanning down the legs too. These spots make the axis deer one of the most easily recognized types of deer.

axis deer in a field
Axis deer have spots resembling those of a whitetail fawn, but they do not go away as they mature as the whitetail do.

The Chital Deer also has a rather long muzzle topped off with a dark black nose. The axis deer normally weighs anywhere from 60 pounds to 170 pounds, depending on the region and habitat.

An interesting feature of male axis deer are their antlers, which normally have six points. However, more dominant bucks are found with more than this, making them significant trophies.

The axis deer were introduced in the United States in the 1930’s. The state of Texas has the highest population of axis deer in the U.S.

The axis deer is normally found living in secondary land areas, around glades where there is plenty to eat. The axis deer’s hoof shape prevents them from walking well on rugged terrain. So, they tend to avoid these types of areas.

The axis deer tend to be more social than other types of deer.

7. Elk

This member of the deer family is found primarily in the Western United States and Southern Canada.

bull elk bugling with cow elk
The elk was nearly killed off by early U.S. settlers, but now thrive, especially in the Western United States.

The elk’s history is complex, with most being killed by Western U.S. settlers by the early 1900’s. The sole survivors were found mostly in the region just west of the Rocky Mountains.

Thankfully, reintroduction efforts were successful, and the elk can be found in many areas today – towering tall at 4-5 feet high at the shoulder. Some even reach up to 9 feet or higher, counting antler height. You can spot an Elk from a distance, with a copper brown coat. This can change to light tan during the Fall and Winter months.

Elk are also easily noticeable by their rump patch, and short light-brown tail. Elk can be found feeding on all types of plants, mostly grass. Although, elk also enjoy twigs, forbs, fir, juniper, aspen, and chokeberry. They also love shrubs, particularly during the cold winter months. Elk predators include cougars, wolves, coyotes, and bears, which often kill calves and sick adults.

8. Reindeer

This Christmas “legend” is actually a real deer. The male reindeer is unique among the rest, easily identifiable mainly by its antlers.

reindeer
Reindeer spend much of the deer grazing.

Other distinctive characteristics include his broad hooves, wide muzzle, and extra-thick brown fur.

These majestic creatures are a medium-sized member of the deer family, found across forests, mountains, and arctic tundra in Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, and Northern China. Reindeer normally travel in massive herds and live in the wild for about a decade.

More domesticated reindeer are herded by Asian Artic and European peoples.

Reindeer are herbivores, and spend most of the day grazing. During the cold winter months, Reindeer can be found grazing on moss and lichens, leaves and herbs.

9. Vampire Deer (Musk Deer)

Otherwise known as musk deer, these “vampires” are actually quite shy and prone to voluntary solitary confinement.

musk deer
The musk deer, or “vampire deer,” has long fangs, but no antlers.

These gentle, nocturnal creatures differ from other cervids, due to their lack of antlers and facial glands. They earned their name through their distinctive sharp vampire-like “fangs.” The over-sized canine teeth are impossible to miss.

vampire deer skull
Vampire deer skulls are instantly noticeable due to their fanged teeth.

While their name and long fangs might scare you off, this unique Asian deer is actually harmless. You’ll normally find him in mountainous regions, like the Himalayas or Siberia.

Take note of his over-sized ears, exceptionally short tail, and lack of antlers. Traits like these make the vampire deer one of the easiest kinds to spot. His coat is grayish-brown, and his hair long and brittle.

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