Midwesterner Discovers Very Rare Melanistic Deer

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

Unique buck represents the rarest whitetail color phase

Stephen Hough found this Illinois buck, which appears to be melanistic. Image courtesy of Stephen Hough

Like most animals, whitetails express an array of color tones, including a spectrum of color phases. Some color phases in the animal kingdom include melanism, albinism, piebaldism, erythrism and more. White-tailed deer can exhibit albinism (all white), melanism (all black) and piebaldism (normal and white pigments). Of those, melanism is the rarest. And recently, Steven Hough of Illinois located a whitetail with that genetic mutation.

“I thought it was a very dark-colored deer, but never really thought that it might be melanistic,” Hough said.

But it was, and Kip Adams, chief conservation officer for the National Deer Association, confirmed it.

“I believe it is,” Adams said. “Most melanistic deer do not have the light coloration around their nose or tail, but some do. Given the lack of coloration on his legs and darker-than-normal coloration on his body, I believe it is a melanistic deer.”

Although this deer was melanistic, it has lighter shading toward the rump. Image courtesy of Stephen Hough

Most melanistic deer are jet black, but this deer seems to also have a lighter gradient of coloration toward the rump. Even so, Adams believes it’s truly melanistic.

“Melanistic deer can range from chocolate brown to jet black,” he said.

Unfortunately, according to Hough, the deer had an undetermined illness or head injury and was eventually put down. A local sheriff’s deputy dispatched the buck.

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“The game warden was supposed to come pick it up, but I never did get the chance to speak with him and get his take on it,” Hough said. “I really never even heard about melanistic deer until I posted in The Hunting Public hunting forum.”

There’s good reason Hough hadn’t heard of them before. According to Adams, the color phase is very rare.

The deer was acting hurt or sick and wasn't fearful of humans. Image courtesy of Stephen Hough

“It’s estimated piebald deer make up less than 1% of deer,” he said. “Albinos are rarer than piebalds, and melanistic deer are even rarer than albinos. So, of the approximately 30 million whitetails in the United States, it’s likely that far less than 1% of them are melanistic. So, that means far fewer than 300,000 melanistic deer.”

In fact, according to fellow Brow Tines and Backstrap blogger Mike Hanback, the first melanistic deer was officially discovered in 1929. Since then, very few have been documented. Even fewer have been harvested by hunters.

Melanism is caused by a genetic mutation that makes the animal’s body produce too much melanin, the pigment that produces darker fur and hair coloration. When the mutation occurs, fur and sometimes other physical traits are much darker than normal. That produces a unique external appearance. Still, unlike albino and piebald deer, which tend to have health issues, melanistic deer do not seem to experience increased health problems compared to deer with typical pigmentation.

Interestingly, although this deer was in Illinois, there are genetic hotspots for melanism. Adams noted that Texas has far more melanistic deer than most other areas where they’ve been discovered. Additionally, Hanback said melanistic deer have been found in Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Virginia. That said, genetically speaking, they could appear anywhere. If you see one, it’s about the most unique thing you’ll witness as a deer hunter.

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