Nature’s Variations

I had an interesting close encounter with a herd of mule deer at Rocky Mountain Arsenal this past Saturday afternoon.

One thing I look for when out photographing deer are genetic mutations. The two most common deer species here in Colorado are Mule Deer and White-tailed Deer. Both species can be found in abundance at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, often in the same proximity.

First, I’m not a wildlife biologist. I have no special training on ungulates beyond information readily available on the internet. I have done a bit of reading and research on the different types of deer though. I know enough to easily identify the different species I’ve encountered. Sometimes.

Learning to identify which type of deer one is observing isn’t normally very difficult. Mule Deer have a distinct antler growth pattern that is different from a White-tailed Deer. Another indicator of species is the coloring of the fur on the tail of the deer. Mule Deer generally have a black tip at the end of their tail, and White-tailed deer normally have a dark outer fur with a white under coat on their tails. The first thing I look for when identifying the species is the tail. Sometimes I run across a deer that doesn’t follow those norms though.

Case in point.

The herd of Mule Deer I photographed on Saturday afternoon had a nice mix of young adult male and female deer, along with some youngsters and yearlings. One particular buck in the herd, at first glance, appeared to be a typical young Mule Deer buck. It had the black tip tail. The fur coloring was identical to the other deer in the herd; however, there was something a little different. His antlers were not typical of a Mule Deer and looked more like the antlers of a White-tailed deer. The other bucks in the herd all had the typical Mule-deer antlers. I quickly dialed in to the variant and followed him with the camera until I could get a nice photo of his antlers.

Mule Deer buck with different antlers. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR.
Mule Deer buck with different antlers. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR.

Notice the antlers on the deer in the above shot. They extend up and quickly turn to the front of the deer. There’s also no front tine on the antlers, as is typical of a mule deer. These antlers look like White-tailed deer antlers.

The next photo is a typical young Mule Deer buck. Notice how the antlers, while containing some curvature, are growing more in a upward direction and then splitting off to different points. There’s also small tine growth near the base. Typical Mule Deer.

Young Mule Deer Buck with normal antlers. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR.
Young Mule Deer Buck with normal antlers. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR.

Now, take a look at a pair of White-tailed bucks in the last photo. Again, found at Rocky Mountain Arsenal. These young bucks are classic White-tails, with the forward curved antlers and growth pattern. Also notice the lack of a black tip on the tail.

Young White-tailed bucks, Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR.

I’ve seen these and other variations at RMA from time to time. I’ve also found these variations in other locations along the front range of Colorado.

It’s known that deer species will interbreed and that interbreeding often results in deer with characteristics of the two different species. In my experience, the cross bred Mule Deer and White-tailed Deer often look more like Mule Deer with hints of the White-tail Deer in its body. The deer I saw on Saturday all accepted this cross bred fellow as one of their herd. He was living with the Mule Deer and probably didn’t know he was a little different, but somewhere up the gene pool, one or more of his relatives was a White-tailed deer there at the Arsenal.

I was fortunate to encounter this group and find this mutant amongst them.

Adding to the experience, while I was photographing this group of deer, an older fellow with Florida license plates on his car drove up to where I was working. As he crept along behind me, he lowered the passenger window of his car and was watching me work. The deer were standing near a fence at the end of Rattle Snake Hill road and he blurted out through the window of the car.

“You aren’t going to get any good photos with that fence in the background.” I paused long enough to turn towards his car and I gave him a raised eyebrow look that beamed my annoyance at him for disrupting the deer I was trying to photograph.

I walked up to the window of his car as he began explaining how bad that fence was going to look in my photo and whispered in the window, “I’m not photographing the fence, I’m photographing that young buck you just spooked.”

He closed his car window and zipped on away from the scene. Fortunately, the deer settled down quickly and I was able to continue working.

It happens all the time. I’ll find a group of animals and sit and watch them, taking my time and being quiet, I’ll get the shots I am looking for, but someone will drive upon the scene, make a lot of noise and offer advice or want to inject themselves into what I am doing and totally foul up the situation with their presence. It’s hard to be polite to people like this. The traveling experts, always there when you don’t need them. He had no clue and would have never noticed the cross-bred animal.

All he saw was a fence.