Anatomy of a Whitetail Deer

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Trail Camera Footage of Two Bucks in Velvet
Velvet covers the buck's antlers during the antler's entire growth period. Velvet is a fur which contains a network of blood vessels and nerve endings, supplying the antlers with much needed nutrients during growth. Velvet is also very fragile and bruises easily. Out of fear of damaging their velvet, and thus their antlers, bucks usually remain more docile during the months that the velvet covers their antlers, as this trail camera photo shows.

A fawn is born with a reddish brown coat splattered with white spots. This allows it to blend in very well with its natural surroundings. In the fall, when the fawn has been weaned, it sheds this reddish coat for a coat similar to that of an adult deer. This new coat is mainly gray with reddish brown tips, which blends with the bleak colors of winter.

Summer coats are less bulky, helping deer cope with the heat. This coat is reddish-tan in color and remains on the deer for about three months. Thickness of the coat becomes extremely important for survival in the long cold winter months. By September, the summer pelage is almost faded gray. The new hairs are hollow, stiff and are about two inches longer than normal. Softer hair keeps the deer warm in the snow by curling against the skin. During the rut, bucks develop darker facial hair due to the higher level of testosterone in the plasma. This darker color is a signal to other deer that he is ready to compete for a doe.

Deer Glands

All the deer's glands are composed of two building blocks: the sebaceous glands and the sudoriferous glands. These glands are found all over the skin of the deer. They also work together to form a network of glands on the forehead, nose, and legs.

The forehead gland is used solely during the breeding season for signposting. The pre-orbital gland, located in the corner of the eye, is used to distribute scent on the overhanging branch of a deer's scrape. The nasal gland is used primarily to keep the deer's nose moist; it is believed that there are other uses for it, but these are yet to be known.

The interdigital glands are located on the feet. Wherever the deer walks, this gland leaves a small scent. Over time, these scents form a trail. Other deer see this trail as a safe route of travel, since other deer have walked it without harm coming to them. If there is danger, the metatarsal gland, located on the outside of the deer's hind feet, gives off a scent which warns other deer of the danger associated with that area. A deer is trained to flee the area the instant this scent is smelled. The tarsal gland is the most important gland. It is located on the inside of the hind legs, and is used to identify other deer. A deer will utilize their tarsal glands for a process called rub-urination. During the rub-urination process, a deer will rub its two tarsal glands together while urinating over them. This urine contains important information about the deer's gender, social status, and physical condition. Dominant buck’s use rub-urinating to establish their place in the herd. Bucks also tend to rub-urinate more during the breeding season, which would suggest that the tarsal gland plays a big role in breeding. In addition, does are able to recognize their fawn by the smell of their tarsal glands.

Deer Mouth/Deer Teeth

Deer are very picky, but cautious, when it comes to taste. If a food does not taste good, the deer will spit it out, along with any saliva that has come in contact with it. This selectivity is important, since a deer will usually feed on any foliage in their area. However, if vegetation is running very short, a deer will choice to eat twigs or whatever else is abundant. Deer have extremely long tongues which contain an enormous amount of taste buds. These buds allow them to distinguish between the various types of foliage present in forest.

The deer's mouth consists of two sections. The front section is used for grabbing and breaking food. It contains teeth called canines and incisors. These teeth are only located on the bottom of the mouth. The roof of the mouth contains only a bony pad. Although this pad makes it hard to break plants, it does provide protection from the rough edges associated with some of the various foods the deer will eat. Between the front section and the back is a gap which contains teeth called molars. These teeth are bigger than the front teeth, and are used to chew the cud.

Evolution has given deer teeth which are ideal for chewing and grinding leaves and twigs. They lack the sharp front teeth, like humans have; instead, most of their teeth are big and flat, like a humans back teeth. Fawns have proportionally smaller teeth called milk teeth, which are better suited to their diet. Deer teeth change annually, thus one can get a very accurate estimate of a deer's age by examining its teeth.

Deer Smell

Smell may be the single most important sense that a deer has. It can be used to mark territories, to aid breeding, and to warn other deer of oncoming danger. For example, under stress, deer emit an unfavorable odor. This smell is then picked up by other deer in the area, which immediately alerts them to the danger. The wet nose of a deer allows it to pick up faint odors, since the odor particles stick to the moisture.

Deer scent can be dispersed in many ways through glands, saliva, and even urine. The dense foliage of the forest and the cautious nature of the deer make other forms of communication unfeasible. However, a deer can leave its scent anywhere for other deer to capture. Since the scent is dispersed throughout glands, the deer does not have to abandon its alertness in order to distribute a scent. Consequently, a deer can evade its predator while still warning other deer.

Signposting is another important method of communication by way of smell. Signposting is done exclusively by the buck, which is why it is sometimes referred to as a "buck rub." Since bucks and does remain separate for most of the year, signposting is used by the buck to let other does know that he is primed to breed. When signposting, bucks will lick the branches above him and urinate on the ground. He will then return to the site to see if any doe has responded by urinating in the same area. By smelling the urine, the buck can determine if the doe is approaching estrus.

Whitetail Deer Tail

The whitetail deer obviously get their name from their white tail. However, the tail is not entirely white. In fact, it is brown on the outside and white underneath. The tail usually grows to 12 - 15 inches long.

The whitetail's tail is most useful to signal a warning. When a deer senses danger, it will become alert and hold its tail at a 90 degree angle. This warns other deer in the area, especially the ones in the herd behind the alert deer that trouble may be close at hand. If a deer is positive that danger is near, it will stand with its tail straight up in the air. This behavior is called a tail flag. The deer will then act appropriately (usually by running). If they flee, the tail will remain standing so that others in the herd can follow the head deer.

The white patch on the tail also helps deer recognize each other in the camouflaged background of the forest. Of course, this method of remaining close together can't always be used, since it helps predators spot their prey when they are grouped together, but it is helpful when the deer are scattered across long distances.

While tail flagging is an involuntary motion, deer will voluntarily use their tails to communicate. Does may raise their tails when they are ready to breed. Fawns also wag their tails like dogs when they are happy. Adult deer will wag their tails when there is no danger and they feel comfortable.

Deer Legs/Deer Feet

Deer belong to a group of animals called ungulates, which is the scientific term for hoofed mammals. The legs of a deer are well suited for running, which coupled with its keen senses, allows the deer to effectively evade danger. The top running speed of a deer is about 35 miles per hour. The deer also possesses great leaping abilities, which allows it to move swiftly across the dense brush of the forest in order to escape danger. The strong muscles of the hind legs contain most of the power which increases their speed and allows them to jump. The front legs are not as powerful as the hind legs, but are ideal for pivoting, and allow the deer to make sharp turns. Also, deer can jump about 8 feet high and are very good swimmers.

The legs of a deer cannot be compared to those of a human. Deer have no knees and their lower legs are actually their feet. So, at the place where it seems a knee should be, there is actually an ankle. The "feet" of the deer are actually two toes, and their hooves can be compared to toenails. The hooves have three parts: the compact horn, the sole horn, and the cuneus. The compact horn is the hardest part; most of the shock from running dissipates through the compact horn. The small hooves provide less contact with the ground, which decreases friction, thus increasing the deer's speed. Their small size minimizes noise while walking through the forest. The hooves are comparable to the third and fourth fingers in humans. The second and fifth "fingers" are located behind the hooves; these are referred to as “dew claws”. Bucks tend to have larger hooves than does. The hooves grow fastest in the summer and slowest in the winter, probably due to the slower winter metabolism of the deer.

Despite their power, the deer's legs are extremely fragile, making it the most injured part of a deer's body. Often, while making a sharp turn, the deer's leg can easily snap. Once the bone is broken, it has little chance of recovering on its own. Deer with three legs are often spotted in the wild. Although their ability to evade predators is greatly reduced, they are still able to live; some three-legged deer have been seen to jump four feet high. A deer's legs contain most of their important communication glands.

Deer Vomolfaction

Deer possess a sixth sense called vomolfaction. It is tough to explain the purpose of this sixth sense since humans have only five senses by which to describe our surroundings. Understandably, early deer researchers were not even aware of this sixth sense. Vomolfaction is mostly used during the rut. It involves sucking in the fresh urine from a doe in order to collect certain chemicals which are not released into the air. These chemicals provide added information about the doe which smell alone cannot provide.

The vemeronasal gland is located in the roof of the buck's mouth and acts like a vacuum, literally sucking the urine from the doe. Once the buck has sampled the deer urine, it is discarded through the mouth.



Cheyenne, WY
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