In North America, one of the single most abundant game resources available to hunters is deer. Now calling them just “deer” is an understatement. In Iowa, people chase some of the world’s largest Whitetail deer. In Montana, they have trophy Mule deer. In the Pacific Northwest and into Canada and Alaska, you can find Blacktail deer. In the Southwest’s rugged and rocky terrain, you can find the gray ghost, coues deer. To the untrained eye and on the surface, all these animals are just “deer” so we are going to dive into the differences of these amazing creatures.
Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) are native to the Western part of North America and have a rather large and expansive area that they can be found. Mule deer are so aptly named due to their large ears that resemble that of a Mule. The size of their ears is determined by what biome that you find them in. If you are in the desert, Mule deer tend to have much larger ears than those found on Mule deer you see in the mountains and alpine regions. This is all about heat dissipation. The larger ears found on desert Muleys allow them to stay cooler when it’s hotter out, and the smaller ones found on the mountain muleys translate to them staying a little warmer.
Mule deer, as a general rule, like to live in rugged areas. Be it the mountains or the desert. They tend to be higher up and in rocky areas. They live on a diet of mostly grass until the winter when that source is scarce, and they then move onto sagebrush as a staple food.
The Mule deer are often a lot larger than their Whitetail counterparts. Another key difference between Muleys and Whitetail deer are their tails. Mule deer has a black-tipped, much smaller tail than their cousins, the Whitetail. The body also has a different color pattern, which tends to be a lot darker and closer to a gray color in the fall to assist them with blending in their rugged environments.
Mule deer are broken into many subspecies, and technically they are a subspecies of Blacktail deer. Here are just a few other examples of Mule deer subspecies: California Mule deer, Cedros/Cerros Island Mule, deer desert/burro Mule deer, Rocky Mountain Mule deer, and Tiburon Island Mule deer, just to name a few. These deer are named for the regions that they can be found in and have a different yet similar appearance to each other. On their own, it’s easy to tell if you are looking at a Mule deer or a Whitetail.
Mule deer antlers grow in a bifurcated way. Meaning that they fork as they grow. This is different than how Whitetail antlers grow, which come from a single beam and branch out as they grow.
Mule deer evolved from Blacktail deer. Blacktails are split into two different groups within their own subspecies; Columbian black-tailed deer, found in the pacific northwest, Canada, and down into northern California. The other subspecies would be the Sitka deer or Sitka Blacktail. Named for Sitka, Alaska, as they are found mostly in Alaska.
Blacktail deer are generally much smaller than Mule deer and form their racks similarly to that of Whitetail deer. These deer are found within coastal regions, and their size results from living in that biome. According to Western states Departments of Natural resources, if a Blacktail deer moves further west, it becomes a Mule deer.
Whitetail and Mule deer share a pretty common DNA; however, with Blacktail, there are many more differences found within. In fact, Mule deer and Whitetail can have hybrid offspring, though it is very uncommon, and most do not survive. This is not the case with Blacktail deer. They cannot mix with other species of deer.
This is probably the most common deer found in North America. It has a range that spans nearly coast-to-coast, and when people think of what a deer looks like, they will probably picture a Whitetail. Much smaller than Mule deer but larger than Blacktail deer, these are the most popular big game in North America. Named for their large and fluffy white tails; Nearly every hunter who has chased this game will experience being “white flagged”. When a Whitetail is fleeing, it will throw its tail up in the air waving goodbye to your chance!
These deer vary in size based on the location that they are found. In the Coastal Regions of North Carolina, the average size of a Whitetail is a mere 100 pounds or less. With trophy deer tipping the scale at 130-150 pounds. Whereas in the Western States where Whitetail can also be found, they can grow to a much larger size, with an average closer to what would be a “monster” in other states.
Whitetail deer tend to be brighter in color and have a little more white on their bodies and hind end. Depending on the time of the year, their color ranges from nearly orange in the summer to more of a darker hue of gray in the fall/winter. As stated earlier, their antlers are also much different. With Mule deer, you get a much taller and more “forky” type of rack. Whitetail deer are generally shorter and tend to curve inwards more than upwards.
Not unlike Mule deer, there are many subspecies of Whitetail deer. Taxonomically, they are the same, but you can see a clear difference in each subspecies when you view them. In fact, Whitetail deer can be found down in South and Central America as well. Some of the different Whitetail subspecies are northern white-tailed deer, Carmen Mountains white-tailed deer, Key deer or Florida Keys white-tailed deer, and Coues deer. As with their Mule deer counterparts, these deer are named for the regions they are typically found.
Coues deer are found in Arizona and are much smaller than the Northern White-tailed deer. Much like Mule deer, they are often gray in color during the fall to blend into the Arizona countryside, which they do exceptionally well, so well, in fact, they are referred to as “the Gray Ghost” by those who have pursued them.
As you can see, many different types of deer roam across North (and South) America. The most noteworthy differences boil down to their size, color, and region that they are found. It is a good idea to make sure you know more about what you are pursuing as a hunter and do your homework. Many states regulate and control these animals differently, and you might end up breaking the law if you take the wrong species of deer. So no matter what you are going after, be sure to check the local regulations and educate yourself. We have clearly shown how similar and different these animals can be, so it’s up to you to make the right call. Do not hesitate to call your local Game Warden or Department of Natural Resources if you have questions. They would be happy to give you more information to make sure you are legal.