- Federal Status: Endangered
- FL Status: Federally-designated Endangered
- FNAI Ranks: G5T1/S1 (Globally: Demonstrably Secure, Sub sp. Critically Imperiled/State: Critically Imperiled)
- IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
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 have a light to dark-brown dorsal (back) side, white belly, and black snout. Bucks can reach heights (shoulders down) of 28-32 inches (71-81 centimeters) and an average weight of 80 pounds (36 kilograms), while a doe can reach heights of 24-28 inches (61-71 centimeters) and an average weight of 65 pounds (29 kilograms).
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.
Key deer use many habitats in the Florida Keys including pine rocklands, hardwood hammocks, mangroves, and freshwater wetlands. The Key deer can only be found from Big Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key.
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.
The diet of the Key deer consists of 160 species of plants including red, black, and white mangroves, and thatch palm berries.
Breeding begins in the fall and winter (National Wildlife Federation, n.d.). During courtship, males become very aggressive with other males that are competing for the same female. The two males will charge each other and lock antlers in a fight over the rights to mate with the female (Schaefer and Main, n.d.). Fighting can be so intense that it can result in the death of one or both deer. The gestation period for the Key deer is 200 days, with fawns being born between April and June. Females usually give birth to one offspring a year, with the offspring averaging a weight of two to four pounds (.9 – 1.8 kilograms) (National Wildlife Federation, n.d.). Males reach sexual maturity at the age of 1.5 years, while females reach sexual maturity at six months (E. Garrison pers. comm. 2011).
The Key deer has faced an array of threats through history. Over-hunting caused extensive harm to the Key deer population until hunting was banned in the 1950’s (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 1999). Today’s threats include habitat degradation, destruction, and alteration. Habitat alteration at the hands of urban development has caused a substantial loss in available vegetation and natural resources, as well as causing habitat to become fragmented. Fences have caused migration routes to be obstructed. Feeding by people, an illegal practice, also poses threats to the Key deer through the spread of disease and parasites in their foraging areas. Feeding any wild animals can cause harm to them, as continuous feeding can result in dependence on people for food. Other threats include increased traffic in the Florida Keys and domesticated animals (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 1999).
National Wildlife Federation. (n.d.). Wildlife Library. Retrieved May 12, 2011, from Key deer: http://www.nwf.org/Wildlife/Wildlife-Library/Mammals/Key-Deer.aspx.
Schaefer, J., & Main, B. M. (n.d.). White-Tailed Deer of Florida. Retrieved May 12, 2011, from Institute of Food and Agriculture Science: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw121.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (18, May 1999). Key deer. Retrieved May 12, 2011, from Multi Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/MSRPPDFs/KeyDeer.pdf