The Deer Family: Cervidae
After a recent trip to Teanaway with Apryle, we stumbled upon a herd of Elk on Bullfrog Road outside of Cle Elum and this sparked a debate over ungulate classification. As a result I turned to the research in order to learn more about family Cervidae. Taxonomy is always in a state of flux, so the specific numbers might vary, but the family currently contains 3 subfamilies, 23 genera and 47 species.
Family Cervidae Taxonomy
Family Cervidae belongs to Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, Order Artiodactyla, and Infraorder Pecora. Order Artiodactyla consists of even-toed ungulates or hoofed animals. Even-toed hoofed animals bear equal weight on an even number of toes. Additionally, even-toed ungulates use multiple stomach chambers (as opposed to intestines) to digest plant materials. Infraorder Pecora consists specifically of even-toed ungulates that utilize ruminant digestion. Rumination is the two-step process of food digestion that consists of chewing and swallowing plant material and then regurgitating the semidigested cud in order to rechew it and extract additional nutrients. Most of the species in this infraorder also have projecting appendages from their frontal bones.
Family Cervidae Description
Cervids are native to Africa (only one native – Barbary Red Deer), Asia, Europe, and North/South America. However, they have been introduced to Australia. They are crepuscular and obligate herbivores with a diet of grass, shrubs, and leaves. Some Cervids are solitary but most live in large herds, which are often segregated between male and female, until breeding season. Most species are polygynous and males compete for dominance over a harem. During breeding season males tend to forage much less in order to defend their territory against rival males. The typical lifespan of cervids is 11 to 12 years.
The Cervidae family contains the second most species of Artiodactyls after Bovidae. The family is broken down into 3 subfamilies: Capriolinae or new world deer, Cerinae or old world deer, and Hydropotinae, which contains only one extant species.
Family Cervidae Subfamilies
All male members of this subfamily have deciduous antlers and in genus Rangifer both the male and female have deciduous antlers. This subfamily contains 9 genera and 27 species and the defining features are remnants of lateral metacarpals and a divided (by vomer) posterior nasal cavity.
The members of this subfamily are also known as plesiometacarpal deer because of their ankle structure. Only the proximal portions of second and fourth metacarpals are retained. Additionally, they have a short vomer, which does not divide the nasal cavity. All male members of this subfamily have deciduous antlers. This subfamily contains 9 genera and 34 species.
This family has only one genus and one species – the Chinese Water Deer. The Chinese Water Deer is native to China and Korea. It lacks antlers, and has a pair of prominent tusks.
Although all of the species of Cervidae are unique and warrant a place in this post, I will restrict the highlighted species to those found in Washington State (and maybe a few other places if they are of particular interest).
Alces alces or Moose
Moose are the largest (5-7 feet tall) and heaviest (up to 1800 lbs) extant member of family Cervidae and they inhabit forests of the temperate and subarctic northern hemisphere in both North America and Eurasia. They have broad palmate antlers and in my opinion they are the most intimidating cervid. The first wild Moose that I encountered was in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado in 2013. Since that point I have seen several in eastern Washington (December 2015-2016), Alaska (July 2017), and the Run Rabbit 100 course in Colorado (September 2018).
There is some confusion in regards to colloquial nomenclature for Moose. In British English, Alces alces is referred to as Elk, but in North American English, Alces alces is referred to as Moose. This of course poses some confusion when chatting cervids with many of my French friends on the trails, because I recognize Cervus canadensis as Elk and Alces alces as Moose. The North American nomenclature is borrowed from the Algonquian, where they refer to Cervus canadensis as Wapiti. The common name for Alces alces or Moose is likely also Algonquian in origin. To further add to the confusion Cervus elaphus or Red Deer of Europe bears a close resemblance to Cervus canadensis or Elk of North America.
Back to Moose, in both Eurasia and North America there are four extant subspecies of Moose:
The Eurasian varieties are the European Elk, which is found in Scandinavia and northern Europe and weighs 600 to 1000 lbs and reaches heights of 7 feet. The Yakutia Elk is found in Siberia, Mongolia and Manchuria and weighs 750 to 1100 lbs. The Ussuri Elk is the smallest subspecies, which weighs 440 to 770 lbs and lives in Far East Russia and Northeast China. The Chukotka Elk is the largest subspecies in the world, making it the largest Cervid in the world. It weighs in at 1600 lbs and reaches heights of 7 feet 1 inch. It lives in northeastern Siberia and the Kamchatka Peninsula.
This subspecies weighs between 595 and 805 lbs and stands 6.5 feet tall. These Moose inhabit eastern Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. They also roam the northeastern US states including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and northern New York. Maine has the greatest Moose population in the lower 48 of the US.
This subspecies weighs between 750 and 1100 lbs and inhabits Canada from British Columbia to Western Ontario as well as Yukon and Northwest Territories. In the US this Moose occupies the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northern Wisconsin, northern Minnesota, and northeastern North Dakota.
This subspecies is the largest in North America and weighs between 1000 and 1400 lbs and stands over 7 feet tall. This Moose calls Alaska and western Yukon home.
Shiras’ or Yellowstone Moose
This is the smallest subspecies of Moose tipping the scales at 500 to 800 lbs. This is the Moose that we see in Eastern Washington (there are no Moose west of the Cascade range). These Moose inhabit Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
This genus of contains two species of deer referred to as Roe Deer, which are native to Europe and Asia. They are closely related to the Chinese Water Deer and grow to lengths of 4.5 feet weigh about 80 lbs.
Rangifer tarandus or Caribou
Reindeer (Eurasia) or Caribou (North America) have circumpolar distribution and are native to the sub-Arctic, tundra, taiga, and mountains of North America, Europe, and Asia. Both male and female Caribou develop antlers. Some populations are relatively sedentary, whereas some are migratory. The largest herd contains almost 1000000 animals and roams Siberia, whereas the smallest number of animals calls the Selkirk Mountains of Washington home. There are 14 subspecies, half of which inhabit North America.
The only Caribou I have ever seen in the wild were in Denali National Park in Alaska in July 2017. The subspecies that I encountered were the Porcupine Caribou and there were several hundred moving across the plain.
The subspecies of particular interest to me is the Boreal Woodland Caribou, which are the only Caribou that inhabit the lower 48 states of the US (specifically Washington and Idaho). They weigh between 350 to 500 lbs and stand 3.5 to 4.5 feet tall. They live in mature conifer forest and feed predominantly on lichen. This southern mountain population is classified as endangered in Washington and there is 47 square miles of protected land in both Washington and Idaho set aside for them. Because there are as few as 12 individual animals left in the Selkirk habitat they have been labeled functionally extinct. In the 2017 WDFW report, the organization recommended the species remain listed as endangered.
Apryle and I have done some running in Pend Oreille County, specifically in the Salmo Priest area, but did not see any sign of the small herd. It would be a real special occasion to catch a glimpse of one of these rare magnificent creatures. Hopefully the continued protections will allow this subspecies to recover, but due to the lack of progress since the 1980s, it is unlikely.
This genus of deer contains about 10 species, which are found from southern Mexico to South America and inhabit forests.
Blastocerus dichotomus or Marsh Deer
This is the largest South American deer, which reaches 6.5 feet in length and 4 feet in height. It resembles the North American Mule Deer and inhabits Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
This genus contains two species of the smallest deer on Earth, reaching lengths of 33 inches and heights of 13 to 17 inches, and weighing in at 20 lbs. The two species inhabit Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Apryle and I have seen this cute little animal several times at the Woodland Parks Zoo in Seattle.
Odocoileus virginianus or Whitetail Deer
This is the deer that I grew up seeing in my backyard and has always captivated my attention. It earns its name because of its short white tail. It is the most widely distributed ungulate of the Americas and occurs in North America, Central America, and northern South America. It has been introduced to the Caribbean, and Eurasia. In the United States it is most prolific east of the Mississippi, but it is also found in eastern Washington and Oregon as well as the southwest. In fact Texas has the greatest population with numbers topping four million.
Odocoileus hemionus or Mule Deer
I first saw this deer in Yosemite National Park in 2011, and then once I moved out west it became the most common ungulate I encountered. It is native to Western North America and its name is derived from its large ears, which resemble that of a mule. Some sources recognize 10 subspecies, 8 of which are Mule Deer and 2 of which are Black-tailed Deer.
In Washington, there are two subspecies: The Rocky Mountain Mule Deer and the Columbian Black-tailed Deer. Rocky Mountain Mule Deer are found across most of the central and western United States and Canada. It is found in Washington east of the Cascades. The Columbian Black-tailed Deer however is found along the British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California coast. Therefore, in the Issy Alps, it is Black-tailed Deer territory.
In my life I have been chased by three ungulates:
- A cow Rocky Mountain Elk at Lake Estes in Estes Park, Colorado in the spring of 2013.
- A Rocky Mountain Mule Deer at a bunkhouse in Republic, Washington in the winter of 2015.
- A Columbian Black-tailed Deer descending Mount Teneriffe in North Bend, Washington in the summer of 2020.
This genus of deer contains 12 species referred to as Muntjacs or barking deer. They are native to Southeast Asia and since they occupy tropical regions they have no seasonal rut and can mate any time of the year. They have short deciduous antlers but instead utilize their short tusks to defend their territory.
This genus of deer contains 2 species of spotted deer referred to as Fallow Deer, which are native to Europe but have been introduced around the world. They have broad palmate antlers, which are more similar to Moose than other deer. They weight between 130 to 220 lbs, reaching lengths of 5 feet.
The Axis or Chital Deer is native to the Indian subcontinent, but they have been introduced to Australia, North America, and Europe. They weigh between 55 and 165 lbs and their three pronged antlers are over 3 feet long. They have a rufous body covered in white spots. Chital are very unique deer and I was able to spot a wild herd during the Nueces 50 miler in Rocksprings, Texas back in February of 2015. In 1932 they were introduced to Texas and now there are 27 counties with self-sustaining herds. They thrive on the Edwards Plataea of Texas Hill Country because of its similarities to its home country of India.
This genus contiains four threatened species referred to as Hog Deer. They inhabit Southeast Asia and are a small deer that reach a height of 2 feet and weigh between 80 and 100 lbs. When fleeing from danger, the deer runs into vegetation with its head down as opposed to jumping over obstacles like other Cervids.
This genus contains four species of deer that are native to southern Asia. Both Rusa alfredi and Rusa marinna are endemic to various Philippine islands and are endangered. They are short statured nocturnal deer that rest in dense thicket during the day. Rusa unicolor or Sambar Deer is both nocturnal and crepuscular and has a wider habitat range. It is the third largest Cervid reaching weights of 1200 lbs and heights up to 5 feet and a length of 9 feet. Rusa timorensis is native to Indonesia and East Timor and are strictly crepuscular.
Cervus elaphus or Red Deer
Red Deer are native to Europe and Asia and are the only deer species to inhabit the African continent (Atlas Mountains of northwestern Africa). It is the fourth largest Cervid and is closely related to the North American Elk (once thought to be a subspecies of elaphus). Red Deer weight between 370 and 530 lbs and reach heights of about 4.5 feet. However, the largest subspecies, which lives in the Carpathians weighs up to 1100 lbs, but has relatively small antlers. The smallest Red Deer subspecies, which is native to Corsica, weighs a scant 220 lbs. Red Deer have been introduced to other continents around the world, much to the detriment of the environment, particularly in South America.
Cervus canadensis or Elk
I love the cute little Pudu in South America. I am intimidated by the large Moose of North America. I am intrigued by adaptability of the Axis Deer in Texas. I am surprised by the last stand of the Woodland Caribou in Washington. I worry for the future of genus Rusa in southern Asia. I have fond childhood memories of the Whitetail Deer Ohio. I am reminded of my only animal attack by the Mule Deer. However, no other Cervid is quite as special to me as the Rocky Mountain Elk.
The first Elk herd that I ever encountered was in Redwood National Park in California in August 2011. I was so ecstatic to witness the impressive gathering of Roosevelt’s Elk. I can recall running in the park later in the afternoon and being intimidated by the enormous creatures slowly walking around me. The next time I witnessed Elk, was in Rocky Mountain National Park in January 2013. This time the herd was Rocky Mountain Elk and I was doing point counts for the National Park Service. Interestingly, my future wife was in charge of coordinating the Elk point counts, which probably adds to my love of Elk.
During my time living in Rocky Mountain National Park it seemed the Rocky Mountain Elk were everywhere. I could not walk between my apartment and the greenhouse without passing by a couple. When I ran the highway into town, there were Elk on the roadside. When I ran into the park, there were Elk in the valleys. Elk became a part of my day-to-day life and I never grew tired of seeing the majestic creatures.
However, upon moving to Washington, my sightings have been few and far between. In my beloved Issy Alps I have only seen two Elk in the 3 years of running in the area. There was a pair of Bulls on Taylor Mountain in November of 2020. In Olympic National Park I have seen a few herds of Roosevelt’s Elk and in Cascades National Park I have seen some Rocky Mountain Elk. There have been a few other sightings peppered in: Herds in the Whiskey Dick Wilderness of central Washington in 2018, a dozen on the roadside in Maple Valley, Washington in 2019, a small group in Farmington on the Washington/Idaho border in 2018, and several herds at Mount St Helens in October 2018.. The most recent sighting, which sparked this post, was in Cle Elum, Washington in December of 2020.
Elk or Wapiti is the second largest Cervid on Earth and one of the largest land mammals in North America. They have thick bodies, slender legs and short tails and reach heights up to 5 feet and weigh up to 1300 lbs. They inhabit forest and forest-edge habitat and their diet consist of grasses, forbs, and shrubs. The males have large deciduous antlers, which they shed each March. The males also engage in mating behaviors during the rut (breeding season). They spar with their antlers, they posture and they make a very cool bugling vocalization to attract females.
There are 10 subspecies, 6 of which are North American, 4 of which are extant, and 2 of which occur in Washington State.
This subspecies occurs in the coastal ranges of the west. It is recognized as the largest subspecies of Elk reaching weights between 700 and 1300 lbs and heights of 5 feet. In Washington this subspecies inhabits Olympic National Park where it is home to the largest living Elk herd in the world with 5000 individuals. In Washington, between the western slopes of the Cascades and eastern side of the Olympic Peninsula, the Elk are a genetic mixture of Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain Elk.
This Elk subspecies is endemic to California and grazes in the grasslands of the Central Valley to the hills of the Pacific coast. The name comes from the species of sedge that the Elk consumes. This subspecies, which once had 500000 individuals, was nearly hunted to extinction, but a lone breeding pair was discovered in the southern San Joaquin Valley and the population has since risen to 4000 animals.
This subspecies of Elk is found in North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Its body size is larger than Rocky Mountain Elk, but its antlers are smaller. This subspecies almost became extinct in the early 1900s, but it has managed to recover.
Rocky Mountain Elk
This subspecies is the second largest, reaching weights of 700 to 1000 lbs and heights of 5 feet. The Rocky Mountain Elk inhabits the mountain west of the North America. In Washington it comprises the population of Elk east of the Cascades. As stated in the Roosevelt’s Elk description, the Elk that Apryle and I spotted in Cle Elum would be a genetic mixture of Roosevelt’s and Rocky Mountain Elk since that area is between the Puget Sound and the west slopes of the Cascades.
This subspecies of Elk once inhabited the eastern US and became extinct in the early 1900s due to overhunting. However, around the same time of the extinction, Rocky Mountain Elk were introduced from Yellowstone in order to replace the void left by the Eastern Elk. There are still Rocky Mountain Elk in the eastern US, but they are uncommon.
This subspecies was once found in the arid southwest of the US, specifically Arizona. The species went extinct in the early 1900s due to overhunting. However, there are still herds of Rocky Mountain Elk in the mountainous areas of the southwest.
In my life I have seen only six wild Cervid species: Moose, Elk, Whitetail Deer, Mule Deer, Axis Deer, and Caribou. However, after diving into the literature and discovering so many other unique species in existence, I hope to increase my Cervid life list in the coming years. In regards to Apryle and I’s taxonomic debate, whether it is a Roosevelt or Rocky Mountain Elk, a Moose or a Red Deer, or even a Black-tailed Deer versus a Mule Deer, the semantics really do not matter. It is important to appreciate the beauty of the wildlife and not spend too much time discussing what to call them.
Gilbert, C., Ropiquet A., Hassanin A. 2006. Mitochondrial and nuclear phylogenies of Cervidae (Mammalia Ruminantia): Systematics, morphology, and biogeography. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 40 (101-117).
Holmes, K., Jenkins, J., Mahalin, P. and Berini, J., 2020. Cervidae (Deer). [online] Animal Diversity Web. Available at: <https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Cervidae/> [Accessed 9 December 2020].
Pitra, C., Fickel, J., Meijaard, E., Groves P.C., 2004. Evolution and phylogeny of old world deer. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 33 (880-895).
WDFW 2019. The Basics of Elk Hunting in Washington. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington.
Wiles, G. J. 2017. Periodic status review for the woodland caribou in Washington. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington. 24 pp.