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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© George Andrejko

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Deer Prudence
There are three species of deer in Arizona — mule, white-tailed and elk. Although they’re distinct, they can be confused, so read this piece to avoid sounding like a tenderfoot the next time you’re in the woods.

By Keridwen Cornelius

If you're like many Arizona travelers, this might be a familiar scenario: You're driving through the forest when someone yells, "Deer!" You pull over so everyone can ooh and aah, then inquire, "Is it a mule deer?" "I think it's an elk," someone says. "It might be a white-tailed," another ventures. And everyone nods silently, because you're all agreeable, and no one wants to admit they couldn't tell an Odocoileus hemionus from an Odocoileus virginianus and wouldn't know a Cervus canadensis if it introduced itself.

Fortunately, Arizona is home to only three species of deer, and they really are quite distinct, once you know what to look for.

First, consider your location. If you're in the far north, it's probably a mule deer, which ranges throughout Arizona and the Western United States. White-tailed and Coues (a white-tailed subspecies) roam the southern half of the state, and elk, a swath that sweeps through the center toward New Mexico.

Second, evaluate its size. Mule deer are middleweights, weighing in at 150 to 440 pounds; white-tailed are lightweights, at 125 to 300 pounds (Coues white-taileds are even smaller); and elk, the biggest species of deer aside from moose, are heavyweights, tipping the scales at 700 to more than 1,000 pounds.

Clearly, there is overlap in both heft and habitat, so you can't be sure until you inspect the tail. Mule deer have black-tipped white tails that they keep down while running. White-tailed tails are brown-topped and often flip up while they run, revealing the white underneath. Elk have tiny brown tails and large beige rumps.

Once you're certain it's a mule deer, you can impress your companions not only with your identification skills, but also with nature show-like factoids: "Note the large, mule-like ears that give the deer its name. And the gray-brown hide, compared with the white-tailed's and elk's warmer, tan color. Though I must admit it was the dark, V-shaped patch between the eyes that told me definitively we were in the presence of Odocoileus hemionus. Observe the large feet, which allow it to dig as deep as 2 feet to find water."

If the deer runs away, you can take the opportunity to wow your mates again: "Mule deer have an unusual, stiff-legged gait called stotting, wherein they land on all fours. They can reach speeds of up to 45 mph. It helps them escape predators in rough terrain, see above bushes, and even make a U-turn in a single bound. It reminds me of the Thomson's gazelle of the Serengeti."

Settle down there, Marty Stouffer. It's just a deer.

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