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Florida's Key Deer

Two key key nuzzle before the fading colors of the setting sun, slipping behind wild grasses..
Credit: Valerie Joan Preziosi, Save Our Key Deer

This week for Species Sunday we are bringing you the Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium). 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. The Key Deer is the smallest subspecies of white-tailed deer, as the 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 only weigh about 65 pounds. Full grown they're only about the size of an average dog.

The Key deer resembles white-tailed deer in almost every aspect of their appearance except for size. Males are around 30 inches tall and females average around 26 inches tall. Like other male deer, the Key deer also has antlers that they shed between February and March. These unique little deer can also swim between the islands, allowing them to search for better grazing or even potential mating opportunities. Longevity of this species is almost 10 years in the wild and a little longer in captivity.

A curious young fawn Key Deer poses beside a truck.
Key Deer share space with locals and visitors alike.

These Key deer used to encompass all of the lower Florida Keys and they can inhabit almost all the habitats within their range. These include pine rocklands, hardwood hammocks, mangroves, and freshwater wetlands. Key deer diet includes over 150 types of plants, but the main ones they feed on are mangroves and thatch palm berries. They can also tolerate drinking mildly brackish water. These deer are well adapted to the unique habitats of the Florida Keys and often share green spaces and urban settings with nearby people.

A curious Key Deer approaches people in the road.
A Key Deer interacts with people in a rural setting.

The Key deer was hunted for food by the native tribes, passing sailors, and early settlers. This practice was banned in 1939, yet poaching and habitat destruction caused the subspecies to become almost extinct by the 1950's. The National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957 to protect this species and 20 other endangered plants and animals. This refuge includes 8,500 acres of protected land. Recent population estimates put the Key Deer population between 700 and 800. Major threats that still plague these deer are human encroachment, habitat destruction, and car-to-deer hits.

A young Key Deer sniffs the camera.
Credit Hal Brindley

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

What you can do to help these deer is support greener laws, drive more cautiously if you are using US 1, and if you visit the habitats these deer encompass, do not feed them (or any wild animals for that matter).

Daphne Kline

Environmental Educator

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