Melanism: A Deer of a Different Color

By GPS1504, Mar 21, 2015 | |
  1. GPS1504
    Imagine setting out into the hunt field in search of the prized whitetail you've been dreaming of for quite some time. In the distance you hear the rustle of foliage. You look up and can see an impressive rack peeking out from around a thicket. As you raise your gun and peer through the sites, a deer steps into view, only that deer does not have the traditional coat coloration of a normal whitetail. Instead, you are staring down the barrel at an all-black or nearly black deer.

    Photo: TX Bowhunters

    Although many of us are familiar with albinism or animals which lack pigmentation in skin or hair, making them appear all white, a lesser known phenomenon called melanism exists as well. Melanistic or melanic deer, as they are called, have a condition opposite of albinism in which their bodies produce too much pigmentation instead of not enough. This surplus of the pigment melanin is very rare and creates a much darker coloration than that of the normal whitetail, making the animal appear almost black in color.

    Photo: Pinterest

    The first melanistic deer in history was documented in 1929. Since then, the elusive black deer has made a few appearances in various parts of the country. Though they are not frequently seen by any means, they are most common in Edwards Plateau and the Blackland Prairie regions of Texas, but they are not exclusively located in those places. They have been seen in the Rocky Mountains, along the East Coast, near the Great Lakes, and even in Missouri.

    Photo: Tumblr

    Despite research being conducted on melanistic deer, the mutation remains unexplained. It is possible that this coloration could provide a survival advantage as the eye of the hunter scans the horizon for a deer with a much different appearance, skipping over something black in color. They also blend well with the foliage in certain areas of the country which also gives them another bit of leverage in terms of longevity. It could be possible that deer with this mutation are breeding and passing it on, but no information is available on the gene that creates it or whether or not it is hereditary. The gene for albinism is recessive and the same is anticipated for that of melanism.


    Although animals with albinism are more of the 'all or nothing' variety, the same cannot be said for melanism. Deer with albinism will be completely white, but melanism does not necessarily create a fully black appearance. Sometimes these deer are dark gray or dark brown and they have been known to have white markings, which causes even more questions about the way melanism works. Deer that are black or otherwise dark in color but present with white markings similar to that of a normal whitetail are referred to as semi-melanistic. In a mature deer, this could mean having a white tail despite a black body. Fawns will have typical white spots regardless of whether or not they are melanistic, although spots are often much smaller and more sparse than normal. It is not uncommon for a doe to give birth to twins with one appearing normal while the other is melanistic.

    Photo: Discovery Blog

    Photo: Tumblr

    The antlers of a deer with melanism will usually bear velvet that is brown in color although gray is also possible. Antlers are otherwise just as healthy and otherwise normal on a melanistic deer as a typical deer. If you want to mount one of these on your wall, however, it will require a great deal of luck. Many of the melanistic deer known to exist are on ranches where they are contained in a strictly controlled area. That means your only option is to stumble across one of these rare beauties by sheer luck alone and decide if you want to harvest this rare and unusual trophy.

    Have you encountered a black or melanistic deer in your hunting experience? If you did, would you harvest such an animal, or wait for one that is more of common in appearance? Let us know in the comments.

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