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Key deer (odocoileus virginianus clavium), the smallest of all white-tailed deer, is a subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer. These deer inhabit Big Pine Key and various surrounding keys. They are not found anywhere else in the world.
Due to uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction, their numbers were estimated less than 50 animals in 1940's. With the establishment of National Key Deer Refuge in 1957 and intensive law enforcement efforts, the population has since increased and has now stabilized. The estimated population is approximately 700 to 800 deer on Big Pine Key and No Name Key (this does not include other keys in the deer's range).Highway mortality is the greatest known source of deer loss.
The shoulder height of Key deer is between 24-28 inches. Does weigh 45-65 pounds while bucks weigh 55-75 pounds.
Rutting season activities begin in September, peaking in early October and decreasing gradually through November and December. Some breeding may occur as late as February. The gestation period is 204 days with fawns born April through June. At birth fawns weigh 2-4 pounds.
Antlers are dropped February through March, and re-growth begins almost immediately so that by June, bucks with 2-inch stubs are seen. Antler growth is completed by August, and velvet is rubbed and kicked off in early September.
Key deer feed on native plants such as red, black and white mangroves, thatch palm berries and over 150 other species of plants. Key deer can tolerate small amounts of salt in their water and they will also drink brackish water, but fresh water is essential for their survival. They must also have suitable habitat to ensure their future existence.
No records exist documenting the origin of the deer in the keys. It is believed the deer migrated to the keys from the mainland many thousands of years ago, across a long land bridge. As the Wisconsin Glacier melted, the sea rose dividing the land bridge into small islands known as the Florida Keys.
The earliest mention of Key deer is found in the memoirs of Fontaneda, a shipwrecked Spaniard held captive by the local Indians. Records suggest that the deer were found around Key West and were used for food by residents and ship crews alike. Although early records indicated sporadic wider distribution of Key deer throughout the lower keys, current data indicates they occupy a range from Johnson Keys to Saddlebunch Keys.
Photo Courtesy of Capt. Michael Vaughn