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How Did Whitetail Deer Get Their Name? Part 2

For those of us who appreciate everything about this animal, the early days of scientific deer study are an intriguing subject in their own right.

How Did Whitetail Deer Get Their Name? Part 2

How much the whitetail's scientific history matters to the average hunter is of course debatable. Knowing who did what when certainly won't make anyone more successful in today's deer woods, but history does matter. (North American Whitetail Photo)

The first sighting of a white-tailed deer by a European likely occurred in the very late 1400s. Whether it was by John Cabot, who sailed to Atlantic Canada from England, or Alonso de Ojeda, who ventured to Central America from Spain, we’ll never know. All we can say with confidence is that long before the U.S. gained its independence, the whitetail was well known to the scientific community.

Based on this, you’d assume our most widespread and abundant deer was also among the first of North America’s large animals to receive a proper scientific name. Yet even after Swedish botanist Karl Linnaeus opened the door to that process, by introducing the modern system of taxonomy in 1735, it would take right at another century for science to settle on calling the whitetail Odocoileus virginianus.

Mistaken Identity

In Part 1, we recounted that Constantine S. Rafinesque, a professor of botany at Transylvania University in Kentucky, proposed Odocoileus as the whitetail’s genus name in 1832. Interestingly, though, he wasn’t a student of the animal. In fact, at the time, he believed he was describing a previously unknown form of extinct goat or ox.

What Rafinesque had in hand was just a few teeth someone else had found in a cave near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. From those unrecognized teeth, the taxonomist proposed the full name of Odocoileus speleus, which roughly translates from Latin and Greek to “hollow tooth that lives in caves.”

A German Mathematician

While Rafinesque’s proposed genus name obviously stuck, the species name, speleus, didn’t. So how did virginianus — Latin for “of Virginia” — become the accepted species name? If the teeth were found in Pennsylvania, what’s the Virginia connection?

To answer this, we must broaden our search, both in space and time, to Germany in the 1770s. It’s then and there that we find the truly obscure contributor to the whitetail’s naming: Eberhard August Wilhelm von Zimmermann.

While Zimmermann was an acclaimed professor of mathematics, from a whitetail perspective his greatest contribution was authoring the important zoological work, Specimen Zoologiae Geographicae Quadrupedum. First published in 1777, this book was among the first to show where the various 4-legged animals of the world could be found.

And yes, the whitetail was among them. In fact, in 1783 Zimmermann produced a world map that showed, among many other things, an area east of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to be the home of “Dam. Virg.” That was an abbreviation of Dama virginianus, his proposed scientific name for the whitetail.

Zimmermann evidently felt the whitetail was very closely related to the Eurasian fallow deer, Dama dama. That animal is of similar body size to a whitetail, though the palmated, upright antlers much more closely resemble those of a caribou. Perhaps adding to Zimmermann’s confusion was that the term “fallow” (light brown) had at that point been in use in England for roughly 800 years; and due to the whitetail’s coloration, some early Americans thus called it the “fallow” deer.

While Dama ultimately gave way to Odocoileus as the whitetail’s genus, Zimmermannm’s virginianus ultimately replaced Rafinesque’s proposed speleus. So each European — Zimmermann a German, Rafinesque a Frenchman — ended up contributing half the scientific name we still use for North America’s most important game animal.

How Did Whitetail Deer Get Their Name? Part 2
Eberhard Zimmermann’s Specimen Zoologiae Geographicae Quadrupedum (pub. 1777) includes a world map showing whitetails (labeled Dama virginianus), near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and south of Lake Michigan. (North American Whitetail Photo)

The Corps of Discovery Connection

To add to this curious tale, it should be noted that during the half-century between Zimmermann’s book and Rafinesque’s description of the Pennsylvania cave teeth, there was another interim scientific name for the whitetail: Cervus virginianus. If Cervus sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because that genus today includes elk and similar Old World species, like red deer and sika deer.

During the Lewis and Clark expedition’s epic trip to the Pacific and back in 1804-6, team member Patrick Gass kept a diary. After arriving back in St. Louis at expedition’s end, he produced Journals of Patrick Gass, the first book detailing the Corps of Discovery’s epic journey. This 1807 classic shared many details of not only the geography and native peoples encountered along the way, but also the wildlife. Gass made the first printed reference to the mule deer and the Dakota subspecies of whitetail, both of which the expedition had seen near the Missouri River in Lyman County, South Dakota.


We’ve seen how in 1832 Rafinesque’s eagerness to name new genera and species led to mistaken identity with the whitetail teeth from Pennsylvania. But 15 years prior, it also led him astray farther west.

In 1812, an account of the adventures of a French Canadian fur trapper named Charles Le Raye came into circulation. It was a chapter in an anonymously authored book titled, A topographical description of the state of Ohio, Indiana Territory, and Louisiana. To that point, most of what the public knew of the West had come from the aforementioned book by Patrick Gass in 1807. But this new account was said to have been from travels Le Raye made just prior to Lewis and Clark’s 1804-6 journey.

What makes this earlier book relevant, from our perspective, is that in it the author described several new forms of wildlife he’d encountered. As it was then permissible within the scientific community to propose new genera and species on the basis of secondhand information, Rafinesque gleaned all the details he could from Le Raye’s account and in 1817 submitted seven animals for scientific naming.

One of these was the mule deer, which he proposed to call Cervus hemionus. The other he named Cervus macrourus, which in English translates to “deer with a long tail.” The Le Raye account described it as having been seen in northeastern Kansas, so Rafinesque felt it appropriate to give this “new” animal the common name of “Kansas whitetail.”

But there was a problem. As pointed out by Dr. Neal Woodman, a Smithsonian Institution research zoologist familiar with Rafinesque’s work, the late historian Clyde Dollar showed the Le Raye writings to be bogus. The trapper never even existed. He and his observations had been invented by the anonymous author of that 1812 account, believed to have been a military officer named Jervis Cutler.

Basing proposed scientific names on a fabrication hardly sounds like a recipe for success. But Rafinesque caught a lucky break. The Le Raye account had been so closely based on the personal notes of Gass that the proposed scientific names were accepted, at least until Rafinesque proposed the genus name of Odocoileus 15 years later. So it can be said with a straight face that the mule deer and Kansas whitetail were described for the scientific community from a work of fiction! There’s some whitetail trivia for you.

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