Mississippi Sportsman

Whitetail Freaks

Cliff Covington - May 27, 2010
This solid white doe is mounted with a normal-colored buck and fawn at Allen Morgan Taxidermy in Brookhaven.
Cliff Covington
This solid white doe is mounted with a normal-colored buck and fawn at Allen Morgan Taxidermy in Brookhaven.

If you spend much time in the world of the whitetail, you are sure to see that Mother Nature can throw a few curve balls. Each year, a variety of downright weird whitetail specimens are brought to skinning sheds. These whitetail freaks fall into three general abnormality categories: antler, skeletal and color. And while these abnormalities have little or no impact on deer populations, they do create a great deal of curiosity because of their uniqueness.

Abnormal antler characteristics are so prevalent that there is a separate division (non-typical) in trophy whitetail record books. The exact cause of non-typical antlers is not fully known. However, suspected causes are hormone imbalances, injury or infection during the velvet stage of antler development and inherited traits.

Besides the average non-typical rack, such oddities as bucks with third antlers, bucks with no antler pedicles, velvet bucks, cactus bucks and antlered does are also reported each year.

Serious skeletal defects in whitetails are seldom observed since these animals have a very slim chance of survival in the wild. Shortened legs, Roman noses, shortened lower jaws and the presence of canine teeth are some of the more commonly seen skeletal defects.

Shortened legs and dorsal bowing of the nasal bone (Roman nose) are more often seen in conjunction with piebald deer exhibiting a large proportion of white hair. However, even normal-colored deer may exhibit Roman noses on rare occasions.

Abnormalities with the teeth would not normally be noticed, but due to the increased practice of removing jawbones for age determination, more hunters are seeing abnormalities such as the presence of extra teeth (usually canines), missing teeth and teeth turned at abnormal angles.

Unnatural hair colorations (white, black, piebald, etc.) are the most obvious abnormality observed in whitetail deer. Since the odd coloration of their coat makes them more visible, these unique deer are subject to higher-than-normal predation rates while young. The ones that are fortunate enough to escape predation at a young age generally don’t last long once the hunting season opens. Their uniqueness makes them prime targets for the hunter looking to score on one of these oddly colored deer. Every whitetail hunter would love to have one of these oddities in his trophy room even though few understand how these whitetail freaks came to be.

What causes these odd colorations? Is it hereditary, environmental influences or simply a matter of chance? And just how rare are such deer in Mississippi?

I learned early on in my career that if you need information about a specific topic, all you have to do is ask an expert. So my first call concerning piebald deer was made to Larry Castle, Wildlife Bureau chief with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks and a noted deer biologist. Not only did Castle answer all my questions, he also added a few more scientific terms to my limited vocabulary.

“Piebald coloration is what we call a pelage anomaly,” he said. “The pelage of a deer is its hair or coat. An anomaly is a departure from the usual, an abnormality. Therefore, a pelage anomaly is a deer hair coat condition that is not common.

“There are several types of pelage anomalies, and most involve deer with larger amounts of white in their coat than is normally observed. Many times these ‘white deer’ are called albinos by hunters. But in reality, the majority of deer with abnormal white pelage are not albinos at all, but rather a genetic mutation resulting in a condition called a piebald deer.”

Normal white-tailed deer undergo two seasonal molts that produce two distinctly different coats. The deer’s summer coat consists of short thin hairs that are reddish-brown in color. This coat is molted in August and September, and is replaced by the winter coat, which consists of longer, hollow grayish-brown hairs over a short wooly undercoat. The hollow hairs and the wooly undercoat provide significant insulation against winter weather. The winter coat is replaced by the summer coat in April and May, and the cycle continues.

“Most hunters don’t realize that white-tailed deer have an awful lot of white hair on their bodies under normal circumstances,” Castle said. “Just think about it for a minute: White hair is located on a band behind the nose, in circles around the eyes, inside the ears, over the chin and throat, on the upper insides of the legs and beneath the tail. That is a large amount of white hair even on a normal-colored deer. But sometimes there is enough white hair present to produce a piebald or even a white deer; remember the two are not necessarily the same.”

For all practical purposes, there are basically four types of hair-coat abnormalities that occur in white-tailed deer: albino deer, white deer, melanistic deer and piebald deer. Let’s take a closer look at each of these abnormalities.

 

Albino deer

An albino whitetail is a true rarity. Albinism is a recessive trait found in mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and even plants. Albino deer do not have the gene for normal coloration, and do not produce tyrosine, the enzyme responsible for skin, hair and tissue coloration. In simple terms, albinism is the total absence of body pigment.

An albino deer’s eyes are pink because the blood vessels behind the lenses show through the unpigmented irises. True albinos also have pink skin, grayish hooves and an entirely white hair coat. Their hair is white because it lacks pigment. An albino’s skin looks pink because the flowing blood shows through the deer’s pale skin.

Albino deer have poor vision, because there is no melanin in their eyes to block out the sunlight. Their inability to blend into their surroundings like normal-colored deer, combined with their poor eyesight and continued ostracism by the other deer in the herd, greatly reduces an albino deer’s ability to survive in the wild. In the game of life, where survival of the fittest is the rule, albinos have a strike against them from the day they are born. Perhaps, that’s why they are so rare.

Because albinism is a recessive trait, both parents must carry the gene before it can occur in their offspring. An albino deer bred to another albino deer would have only albino offspring. However, an albino bred to a normal deer with no recessive genes for albinism would produce all normally pigmented deer.

Offspring from the cross would carry the recessive gene for albinism, but would exhibit normal coloration. Each time carriers of the recessive gene for albinism breed, there is a 25 percent chance that they will produce an albino fawn. According to researchers, only about one deer in 30,000 is an albino.

 

White deer

Contrary to popular belief, not all white deer are albinos. Some white whitetails have normally pigmented noses, eyes and hooves. This condition is a genetic mutation for hair color but not other pigments.

The Seneca Army Depot in the state of New York is home to the largest known concentration of white whitetails. Two white fawns were noticed on the 10,000-acre high-fenced property in 1956. They were protected, and the proliferation of these mutant whitetails began. Recent estimates indicate that over half of the 400-500 deer on the base are white. Mutations are considered inferior to “normal” deer, and should not be protected. However, some states protect their white deer, which makes the mutation more common.

My first and only encounter with an abnormally colored whitetail was in 1995. While sitting in a ground blind one December afternoon, I watched as a solid-white fawn grazed within yards of my stand. The young buck had what appeared to be four brown stocking feet and a brown patch of hair on his forehead, but the remainder of his body was snow white.

Since he was so young, I decided to let him go in hopes that I could harvest him when he got older and sported a nice set of headgear. That season and the next, I encountered the “ghost buck” almost daily. By the second year, he had grown a small 3-point rack. I was beginning to have visions of taking the white buck the following season when he was certain to have an 8-point or even a 10-point rack.

Unfortunately, that was the last time I would ever see the “ghost buck.” I will never know whether he was killed by predators or simply died of natural causes. But that really isn’t important, because I will always consider myself fortunate for having the opportunity to observe such a rare animal on so many different occasions.

 

Melanistic deer

Melanism is a condition that is even rarer than albinism in white-tailed deer. This condition is caused by the overproduction of melanin, the chemical responsible for dark pigmentation in animals.

Melanistic deer will have a dark, almost black hair coat. This unusual characteristic also tends to eliminate normal white markings, particularly on the face and throat. Melanism is more common in other animals, such as squirrels, and is particularly rare in whitetails. Harvesting a black whitetail is considered by many to be the “holy grail” of deer hunting.

 

Piebald deer

The most common of all the coloration abnormalities seen in white-tailed deer is the piebald. According to Castle, piebald coloration occurs at a rate of about one in every 2,000-3,000 deer. With an estimated harvest of 300,000 deer per year in Mississippi, it stands to reason that a number of piebalds are taken by hunters each season.

“Of the 400 deer I take into my studio each year, only two or three will be piebald,” said Allen Morgan, a veteran taxidermist from Brookhaven. “Although I wouldn’t consider piebald deer to be extremely rare, they are very uncommon. In fact, in almost 35 years as a taxidermist, I know of only one hunter who has harvested more than one piebald deer. Harvesting a piebald is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event for most deer hunters in Mississippi.”

Piebald deer are characterized by having splotches of non-pigmented (white) areas in the hair coat. The degree of the white splotches can vary from a few small spots to an almost entirely white deer. In some areas of the country, a piebald deer may be referred to as a “calico” or a “pinto.” The piebald characteristics seem to occur in both sexes in equal proportions.

According to some deer biologists, the genes that produce this abnormality not only increase the amount of white on the animal but quite often cause other undesirable features such as dorsal bowing of the nose (Roman nose), short legs, curving or arching of the spine (scoliosis), short lower jaws and malformation of certain internal organs.

Many do not survive to adulthood, and of those that do, many look dwarf-like due to their shorter legs. Some piebald deer, however, remain quite normal and exhibit none of these physical defects.

The white-tailed deer is plenty fascinating all by itself. But throw in some color changes and a few genetic mutations, and things can get really interesting. If you happen to see one of these whitetail freaks in the wild, consider yourself lucky as they are a true rarity. But for those hunters fortunate enough to harvest one, consider yourself to be one of a chosen few.