Key Deer: Odocoileus virginianus clavium
The Key deer is the smallest subspecies of white-tailed deer. The largest bucks grow to less than a yard high at the shoulders and weigh about 80 pounds. The does are 24 to 28 inches at the shoulders and weigh about 65 pounds.
Key deer are found only in the Florida Keys, the archipelago of islands off the southern tip of Florida. While their historic range probably went from Key Vaca south to Key West, their range now includes about 26 islands from Big Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key and they can swim from one island to another. Key deer numbers fell to less than 50 in the 1940s. Hunting and habitat destruction led to their almost disappearance. Establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge in 1957 helped this Florida-only subspecies survive. Other important steps in its conservation were adding fencing along roadways, imposing stricter speed limits and stepping up law enforcement. The current Key deer population is estimated to be 700 to 800 deer, with the greatest concentrations on Big Pine Key and No Name Key. While its population is considered stable for now, the Key deer remains listed as a federally endangered species. Key deer use all habitats within their range, including pine rocklands, hardwood hammocks, mangroves and freshwater wetlands. Pine rocklands are particularly importance because they contain permanent freshwater sources essential for the deer’s survival. Key deer feed on over 160 species of plants, including native red, black and white mangroves and thatch palm berries. As human development has increased within the Key deer’s range, the deer have increased their use of residential and commercial areas to feed on ornamental plants. But they become more vulnerable to disease when they crowd into these artificially created area for food and water. Future threats to the deer include hurricanes, sea level rise and loss of habitat due to development.
More people coming to the Keys as residents or visitors has led to more illegal feeding of Key deer. As with other wildlife, feeding Key deer is harmful for many reasons but primarily because it lessens fear of humans. Key deer can be found foraging in yards and on roadsides, where they approach people and slow-moving vehicles for handouts. Getting hit by vehicles is now the primary cause of Key deer mortality. Illegal feeding also causes a concentration of Key deer populations, facilitating the spread of parasites and disease.
Visit the National Key Deer Refuge .
Image Credit: Carli Segelson