An Unusual White-Tailed Deer From Maine's 2018 Hunting Season

ArrayFebruary 4, 2019 at 9:02 am

By Scott McLellan, Regional Wildlife Biologist  Wildlife biologists with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) spend countless hours each deer hunting season interviewing hunters and collecting a multitude of information from white-tailed deer.  This information includes, but is not limited to, collecting a tooth for aging, sex, harvest date and township, antler measurements and number of points, and retropharyngeal lymph nodes for testing of Chronic Wasting Disease.  Our goal is to evaluate 15% of the harvested deer from each wildlife management district, which means that we observe a lot of harvested deer over the course of the entire hunting season.  Occasionally, we see something that is very unusual and worth sharing. During November of 2018, I was fortunate to witness a partially brown and white deer that had been harvested north of Moosehead Lake, only the third one that I have observed as a wildlife biologist in the Moosehead Lake region. There are 2 possible explanations for this coat coloration. First, it is possible that the animal has a condition called piebaldism, which is a rare, genetic anomaly in white-tailed deer that can result in a range of deformities from unusual coat coloration to skeletal misalignment.  Although skeletal issues such as short or crooked legs, hooves, and spine can be symptoms of this condition, it is likely that many of these deer do not survive long enough to ever be observed.  However, piebald deer that only exhibit milder symptoms of this condition, such as varying patches of white hair, are more likely to be observed.  The amount of white hair can range considerably from just a small, discrete patch to nearly 100% white hair.  The harvested deer that I observed was about 50% white, mostly confined to the lower portions of the body, and there were no outward signs of skeletal deformities.  It has been reported that less than 2% of white-tailed deer are piebalds, which is rare, but still more common than albino deer.  Unlike albino deer, which are all white with pink eyes, a pink nose, and pinkish hooves, piebald deer have brown eyes, a black nose, and blackish hooves. The second possibility is that the harvested deer that I observed had leucism, a condition in a variety of animal species in which there is partial loss of pigmentation to cause white, pale, or patchy coloration of skin, hair, feathers, scales, or cuticle.  A partial loss of pigment cells is more common than a complete loss of these cells (where the animal would appear completely white), and this results into irregular patches of white.  This partial leucism is also known as piebald, and these animals retain a normal eye color and other features.  Although further testing would determine whether the deer had piebaldism or leucism, it is safe to assume that there was a pigment issue (or partial lack thereof). The hunter that harvested the deer was very willing to share his story and allow me to photograph the animal for this blog article.  It has long been a superstition throughout the hunting community that killing a white deer will bring a long stretch of bad luck, but I doubt that crossed his mind when the animal was within shooting distance from him!  I guess time will tell whether he buys into this superstitious belief.