With the upcoming visit of Santa and his reindeer, this is a good time to brush-up on deer facts.
Deer and antelope are often mistakenly thought of as the same creature. While they are similar in shape and structure, they are different species in different families.
The main difference between the two: antelope have permanent horns, whereas deer (males) have antlers they shed and grow anew every year. Antlers are bone, and are an extension of the skull.
The deer family, Cervidae, is represented here by caribou, moose, elk, and of course deer. Although there are deer on all continents except Australia and Antarctica, these were all seen in North America.
Caribou are native to the arctic and can be found in northern parts of North America, Europe and Siberia. In North America they are called caribou, in Europe they are called reindeer; both are the same animal, Rangifer tarandus.
The males have huge racks which they drop every year.
Moose, another kind of deer, are the largest and heaviest species in the deer family. In Europe they’re called elk; with the scientific name of Alces alces.
The first time I saw a moose was on a hike in an aspen grove near Anchorage, Alaska. A solitary mammal, she grazed while we quietly stared and photographed; and we all remained like that for nearly half an hour.
I was astounded by how tall she was. Adult average height: 4.6-6.9 feet tall (1.4-2.1m). Her tall, long-legged body towered over us, the top of her back was nearly six feet off the ground.
In Colorado, we saw this mother moose (below) with her just-born twins. She was quite far away near a river, and her calves were barely able to stand.
Moose love water.
Another kind of deer, the elk, aka Cervus canadensis, can be found all over North America, Central and Northeast Asia. There are many subspecies; six in North America. The Native American term is wapiti, and in Europe they are called “red deer.”
We came across this female herd in Yellowstone.
They are sociable animals and are usually found in herds. Bulls are territorial only during mating season. When they are rutting, or competing for females, they behave restlessly and become vocal with their bugling. Although the sound varies with each individual, it has a screaming quality to it and can be heard for miles.
These three males were in conflict, they were bugling loudly and crashing antlers.
This one was bugling the loudest and showing great bravado.
When not in the rutting season, the elk are placid and beautiful.
In Colorado, we found this cheeky young male having a good laugh.
Typical-looking deer are of course in the deer family and include mule, white-tailed, and black-tailed deer. There are many subspecies.
This quiet trio of white-tailed deer were seeking refreshment on a hot day in Nevada. The most common deer in North America, they also occur in many other parts of the world.
Where I live in Northern California, we have the black-tailed deer who range from here up the coast into British Columbia. They are a subspecies of the mule deer.
On our property we are lucky this season to have the not-so-scientifically named holiday deer lighting our way.
May we all have the gentleness of deer, Santa’s or otherwise, steering us forward during this holiday season.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.