September 22, 2010
By Gordon Whittington
In terms of coloration, which whitetails are the rarest of all? Most hunters would claim that distinction belongs to albinos, which lack any pigment in their skin or hair. But as unusual as it is to see a whitetail that's far too light in color, it's even less common to see one that's far too dark.
On the continent as a whole, "melanistic" or "melanic" deer - so named because their bodies produce far too much of the hair, skin and retina pigment known as melanin - are definitely the rarest of the rare. While millions of whitetails have been harvested across the continent in modern times, only a token number of cases of melanism have been documented. In fact, it's safe to say that most whitetail hunters have never even heard of melanistic deer, much less seen one. For that matter, only a few research biologists ever have observed one in the flesh.
Among those who have are Dr. John T. Baccus and John C. Posey of Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. Their school's location between San Antonio and Austin gives them handy access to melanistic whitetails for research, for as it turns out, most of the world's supply of these animals lives within an hour's drive of the campus.
The eastern edge of Texas' Edwards Plateau region and adjacent areas of the Blackland Prairie region are the epicenter of the world's population of melanistic whitetails, for reasons not well understood even by the two researchers. In going over the scientific literature, Baccus and Posey have been unable to find any record of melanistic deer being documented anywhere prior to 1929.
The odd "black" deer has shown up here and there, from the East Coast to the Great Lakes to the northern Rockies. In fact, below you'll find a photo of a striking melanistic 8-pointer shot in southeastern Pennsylvania in 2002. But it's safe to say that at any given time, there are now more melanistic whitetails alive in Central Texas than in every other part of the planet combined. Melanism is actually fairly common in all or parts of eight counties: Hays, Travis, Comal, Williamson, Blanco, Guadalupe, Burnet and Caldwell.
Andrew Hargrove shot this rare melanistic buck in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 2002. The only white on the deer is the underside of the tail. Taxidermist Don Bennett currently is working on a full-body mount of the unique trophy. Look for the full story in a future issue of our magazine. Photo by Roger Hayslip.
Why would this be the case? The researchers admit that they aren't sure, but they say the mutation likely has been perpetuated because it offers a survival advantage. Melanistic deer are concentrated along the region's drainages, where cover is thick and a dark-colored prey animal would have an edge in avoiding detection. This trait also would serve them well in the upland juniper thickets found in the same part of Texas.
The biologists say that they don't know if the circumstances that produced this genetic trait are even still in existence. Nor, for that matter, does anyone know if a single gene is responsible. Regardless, the trait seems to be in no eminent danger of disappearing.
By no means are all deer with melanistic traits totally black. Indeed, there's a wide range of shades, with some being quite black and others being more of a dirty brown or dark gray. This has led some biologists to wonder if a single gene controls hair color or if instead multiple genes combine in a variety of ways to display a wide range of forms.
There's no middle ground with albinism; a deer either does turn out to be an albino or doesn't. But the same can't be said of melanism. According to the SWTSU researchers, some deer are semi-melanistic, meaning they display coloration and markings somewhere between those of normal and melanistic specimens. Semi-melanistic deer have the dark overall coloration of melanistic deer but retain the white areas of normally colored deer.
Melanism is easily seen even in fawns, as those with too much pigment are sepia, seal brown or dark gray. Only rarely do they have spots of the sort seen on normally colored fawns; most have only traces of spots or none at all.
Albinism is a recessive trait, and current thinking is that melanism is recessive as well. What leads researchers to draw this conclusion is that dark fawns often are born to does of normal coloration, and vice versa. Indeed, as with albino and piebald fawns, does sometimes bear one fawn normal in coloration and one abnormal in coloration.
Bobbie Fain took this "black" buck in Dimmit County, Texas. Most melanistic deer live in Texas, with the highest number being around 150 miles northeast of this ranch. Photo by Gordon Whittington.
None of the research done to date suggests that melanistic bucks have inferior antlers. The velvet on their racks tends to be brownish, but the SWTSU researchers note that they have seen one melanistic buck with gray velvet.
Given the rarity of melanism in whitetails on a continental basis, you might be wondering if it's possible to gain hunting access to these strange deer on any of the Texas lands where they thrive. Unfortunately, there are at present no public hunting opportunities for melanistic deer, as most of the animals live on large, leased ranches with tightly controlled access.
Nor are any outfitters currently advertising hunts for these unique animals. (Bobbie Fain did shoot a big semi-melanistic whitetail on a guided hunt at Rancho Encantado in Dimmit County in 1997. However, this ranch lies far outside the normal area for melanism, and Bobbie's trophy appears to have been an isolated case. Ranch owner Jack Brittingham says he's seen no other "dark" deer on the property since he began managing the land in the early 1990s, though he recalls having observed some deer of "toffee" color.)
Melanistic whitetails make beautiful mounts, and they definitely rank among the rarest of all deer trophies. But unless the animals become far more widespread than is currently the case, anyone wanting to admire a black whitetail probably will have no choice but to do so through photos.