The Current Status and Future of the Key Deer (FINAL)

This discussion topic submitted by Jody Holloway ( at 5:40 pm on 6/6/00. Additions were last made on Sunday, June 3, 2001.

The Key deer have been the center of controversy in the Florida Keys for over sixty years. As the number of Key deer continues to decline, the debate between residents, ecologists and county commissioners continues.

What Is The Evolutionary History Of The Key Deer?

Ancestors of the Key deer migrated from the mainland ten thousand years ago when the last glaciers melted. As the glaciers melted, water levels rose creating a series of islands. (1) The earliest mention of the Key deer was found in the memoirs of D.E. Fonteneda, a Spanish explorer, in 1575. At that time the deer were abundant and used for hides and food. (1) Key deer are the smallest subspecies of the white tailed deer. As a rule, species that become isolated on islands gradually become smaller in size through evolution. This appears to allow more efficient use of available resources. (2)

What Is The Taxonomy Of The Key Deer?

Key deer are considered by some to be a separate species because they do not interbreed with other white tailed deer. The taxonomy is as follows:
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Cervidae
Genus: Ordocoileus
species: virginianus
subspecies: clavium

What Do Key Deer Look Like?

Key deer are half the weight of their relatives the northern white tailed deer. Males have an average weight of 36kg. (80lb.)and females have an average weight of 29 kg. (64lb.). The shoulder height averages between 61 and 71 cm. (24-28 in.). (1) The Key deer have a shorter and broader head than mainland deer. They also have smaller teeth and a shorter tooth row length. (7) The coat varies from deep brown to a gray color. (6)

What Are Some Behaviors Of Key Deer?

Key deer do not have highly developed family bonds. (1) Male deer can be seen displaying a "head rubbing" or "sign Posting" behavior. This behavior, however, is not territorial for Key deer as it is for other species of deer. Several males can be found using the same area. (7) Adult females will drive others away from fawns and adult males will drive rceptive females away from other males. (7) Does will produce only one fawn each year and bredding will take place from September through November. Does will give birth between March and May after a 204 day gestation period. (1) Fawns are precocial and able to follow the mother within one hour after birth. The fawn will nurse two to three times a day and spend the rest of the time bedding. At two to three weeks the fawn will spend more time feeding with the doe and at four weeks begin to move around independently. (7)

What Do Key Deer Eat?

Key deer feed on 180 different species of plants. (2) The main source being red and black mangrove, Indian mulberry, silver palm and thatch palm. (1) They can tolerate next to no salt water in their diet. (8)

Where Do Key Deer Live?

Key deer are restricted to Monroe county of Florida. The majority of deer are found on Big Pine Key. The rest can be found on Big Torch, Cudjoe, Howe, Little Pine, Little Torch, Middle Torch, No Name, Sugarloaf and Summerland. (6) They will be found in hardwood hammocks and mangroves during the day and in open grasslands and meadows during the night. (1)

What Is The Current Status Of The Key Deer?

State law banned the hunting of Key deer in 1939, but by the end of World War II only thirty deer remained. The National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957 and the population began to grow. Unfortunately, around this same time there was a boom in resort and residential development. (1) Key deer were listed as endangered in 1967. (1) They are also protected by the Lacey Act which makes it unlawful to import, export, sell, receive, aquire or purchase any wild animal. (7) By 1978 there were 400 animals but the habitat had shrunk and the Key deer were now restricted to the lower Keys. By 1989 there were 300 animals. Currently there are around 200 animals on Big Pine Key and the rest are on Saddle Bunch to Sanish Harbor Bridge. (1) In 1995 there were 94 deer killed. In 1996, 104 deer were killed. Only 45 fawn are born each year. (4)

What Is Endangering The Key Deer?

Natural causes of death for the Key deer include hurricanes, drought, disease and parasites and old age. (7) Predators include the Florida panther, dogs and humans. (8) Humans have become the greatest threat to the Key deer. Fifty years ago, only seven people lived on Big Pine Key. By 1997, 4,300 people lived there. (2) Eighty percent of the deaths of Key deer are caused by "road kills". (1) Over 2.5 million visitors travel on U.S. Highway 1. In 1997, 84 deaths were caused by cars. (5) Key deer have become a tourist attraction. Public feeding reduces the fear of cars. (1) The deer are being fed unhealthy food like hot dogs and gum. A poor diet affects breeding ability and feeding encourages gathering in groups which increases the likelihood of disease and parasites. (5) "We may be literally loving them to death", states Barry Steleglets who is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge manager. (5)

The second cause of death among the Key deer are dogs. Free running dogs kill fawns and chase deer in to traffic. (1) The third cause of death is drowning. There have been 165 km. (100 miles) of steep mosquito ditches dug along Big Pine Key. (1) The ditches are typically two to three feet deep and two feet wide making them too wide swim across and too deep to climb out of. (4)

As long as development continues, the Key deer habitat will continue to diminish. Currently there is a proposal to build a school on Big Pine Key because the Sugarloaf Key school is full and overcrowded. (3) Although the overcrowding is a problem, the building will take away some of the deer habitat. This is one indication of the controversy surrounding the Key deer.

What Is Being Done For The Key Deer?

Those people fighting to protect the Key deer insist that steps taken to protect the deer will have other benefits as well. State Hearing Officer Larry Sartin said, "State and local government must limit growth in Monroe County because of Key deer protection, hurricane evacuation and water quality." (2) The Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key is home to sixteen listed species including the lower keys marsh rabbit, silver rice rat and American crocodile. (2) Mark Robertson, head of the Nature Conservancy's Key West office says, "Key deer is the flagship for a whole fleet of species in the Keys. There are many endemic plant and animal species and they are all going to sink or swim together." (2) The goal of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is to aquire as much land as possible. $65 million is needed to get the needed land but the FWS only receives $1 million each year. (2)

From 1969-1973, 124 acres have been cleared on Big Pine Key to provide meadows for the deer. Counteracting this was the building of 300 housing units in 1984. (1) In 1982, public feeding became illegal and in 1989 controlled burnings were used to create meadows. (1) The Keys have been designated as an Area of Critical State, meaning new regulations have to be approved by the state who are more protective of the deer than county commissioners. (2) Mike Puto, commissioner of Monroe County stated, "They deer don't pay taxes. People do." (4) Despite the refuge, the endangered list, fining, road signs, AM radio broadcast alerts and the reduction of speed limits on Highway 1, the number of deaths is continuing to increase. (5)

Without a joint effort between government officials, residents and environmentalists the population of people and tourist acitivity in the Keys will contimnue to rise. With this, the number of Key deer as well as other endagered species will continue to fall.


1. The Official Wildlife Fund Guide to Endangered Species of North America Volume I.Walton Beacham,1990

2. DiSylvestro, Roger (1997) What's Killing the Key Deer?. National Wildlife 35:16-23

3. Scopes, Jack (1994) Key Deer Controversy. Wildlife Conservation 35:4

4. Carey, John (1987) Trouble in Paradise; development in the Florida Keys is pushing the diminutive Key deer towards extinction. National Wildlife 25:42-45

5. Straw, Deborah "Key Deer in the Headlights" 1998. National Resources Defense Council. March 26 2000

6. Miles, Don "The Don Miles Key Deer Page" 1996. National Wildlife Federation. March 26 2000

7. Species Deer, Key "Taxonomy" 1996. Management Practices. March 26 2000

8. Odo's Key Deer Website, "This is Odocoileus virginianus clavium's Official Key Deer Web Page" 1997. March 26 2000

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