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Dark Deer

The opposite of albinos, melanistic deer can be found in a small segment of the Hill Country.

By Ben Rehder

Use the phrase “albino deer” in a conversation, and most people will know you’re referring to a white deer, one without any pigment in its hair or skin. But mention a “melanistic deer” and you’re likely to receive looks of uncertainty — even from experienced hunters, hikers and campers. It stands to reason, because these unusual deer are even less common than their albino cousins.

Simply put, a melanistic, or “black,” deer is one whose body produces excessive amounts of the pigment known as melanin, resulting in an animal that’s much darker than we’ve come to expect. Unlike albinism, which is an all-or-nothing proposition (albino animals are either white or they aren’t), melanism is a continuum, with deer that range from chocolate brown to jet black.

While melanistic deer are quite rare across North America, Central Texas, by comparison, has more than its fair share. In fact, according to John Baccus, director of the wildlife ecology program at Texas State University and an 11-year researcher of melanistic deer, there are more black deer in an area comprised of eight Texas counties (Blanco, Burnet, Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe, Hays, Travis and Williamson) than in the rest of the world combined. Still, don’t expect to step out your back door and see one.

“Even though we have more melan istic deer here than in the whole world,” says Baccus, “they’re still extremely rare. It’s the rarest of the white-tailed deer, even rarer than the big-antlered deer. I get the harvest records every year from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and generally, there are fewer than five of these melanistic deer that are harvested in any given year.”

The question that immediately springs to mind is, What causes melanism? Nobody knows for certain, but it could be that the mutation offers a survival advantage in heavily wooded riparian environments.

Baccus says, “All of these [melanistic] deer have been associated with a drainage in which you have greater subdued light from the trees in the area. A deer that’s darker in color would get a certain degree of camouflage from the dark shadowing.”

Indeed, you might hike past a melanistic deer and not even realize it. Baccus remembers one black deer that his team spotted in Lakeway, near Lake Travis. “This was the middle of the afternoon, bright sunlight, and this deer was back up in some cedar trees. The only way we knew that deer was there was because one of the students picked up on the glistening from the wet nose.”

For hunters, a melanistic deer represents a true once-in-a-lifetime trophy. Even in Central Texas, most avid hunters have never spotted, much less harvested, one. Austin resident Steve Deis is one of the lucky ones. Hunting on a large ranch just minutes west of Austin, he bagged an eight-point melanistic buck on Christmas Day in 1998.

“I’ve always looked for things that are a little unusual,” says Deis. “I didn’t want a normal white-tailed deer with 10 points, I wanted something different, and I guess this was my Christmas present that year.”

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