Melanistic Deer


We can usually recognize deer by their distinctive brownish color, including variations such as spots and discolorations that help them camouflage and blend into their natural habitats. However, some deer look different, occasionally very different. For example, there’s the melanistic deer (otherwise known as the black deer).

Melanistic deer have little coat color variation. In other words, these dark deer are more of a solid color.

Their dark color makes melanistic deer easy to distinguish from normally colored deer. Yet the first recorded instance of a melanistic deer sighting was as recent as 1929.

Let’s learn all about melanistic deer and the unique genetic characteristics that produce this coloration below.

What is a Melanistic Deer?

A black deer or melanistic deer is not a separate species of deer. Rather, it is a normal deer that has a genetic anomaly making its coat darker. For example, a melanistic white-tailed deer is still a white-tailed deer. The word melanistic has the same root as the word “melanin,” which is pigmentation. Black deer have a recessive genetic alteration in the melanocortin 1 receptor gene (MC1R).

Other Animals Can Have This Condition

Other animals can be melanistic. The “black panther” is the most famous example. This big cat is actually a melanistic leopard or jaguar.

There are other animals that can be melanistic. Just a few examples include:

  • squirrels,
  • guinea pigs, and
  • snakes

Animals may also be pseudo-melanistic. This means that parts of an animal’s body will express this characteristic.

Humans cannot be melanistic. People with darker skin have more melanin to protect the skin from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, but this is completely different from being “melanistic”. It has nothing to do with recessive genes the way melanism in deer does.

How Rare Are Melanistic Deer?

Black deer are rare. However, they are more prevalent in some areas than others.

There is a Texas region where the number of black deer is estimated to be as high as 8% of the total deer population. This is much higher than the average.

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Perhaps this isn’t as surprising as it might be otherwise, as Texas has the largest white-tailed deer population in the United States.

We cannot measure the precise number of black deer in the world. However, most estimates guess that only about 1 in every 500,000 deer is melanistic.

Inbreeding can lead to high rates of black deer in an area. That is because inbreeding makes recessive genes more dominant.

This occurs in other animals, as well. For example, as many as 95% of all leopards in the Malay peninsula may be black.

Are There Black Deer in Europe?

Melanistic deer may be found anywhere deer live.

Fallow deer have been bred in European deer parks for quite some time. Fallow deer live in Europe, and some of their herds exhibit melanism.

Other locations in Europe and around the world may have high black deer populations that we haven’t discovered yet.

As of the time of writing, the only recorded sightings of melanistic white-tailed deer have been in North America. Theoretically, however, black deer could live anywhere in the world where whitetail deer are found.

Piebald vs Albino vs Melanistic Deer

In addition to melanism, there are other types of recessive genetic anomalies that affect a deer’s coat color and appearance.

Albinism in deer is the most famous type of genetic anomaly. It’s found among many different species around the world, including humans.

We can think of albinism as the exact opposite of melanism. Albino animals lack color pigmentation and are often entirely white.

In the case of an albino deer, the entire coat will be white without any variation, and the eyes will also be reddish or pale.

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Piebald deer are somewhere between albino and regular deer. In the same way that an animal can be pseudo-melanistic, piebald deer will have splotches or areas without color, meaning they will be partially white.

The rest of the deer will have normal pigmentation.

When comparing Piebald vs Albino vs Melanistic deer:

  • Piebald deer are the most common, though they are still extremely rare.
  • Albinism occurs less frequently in deer, but it is more pronounced and easier to recognize.
  • Black deer are the rarest of these three kinds of deer, and most hunters will never see one.

Can You Shoot a Melanistic Deer (and should you)?

There is nothing to stop you from shooting a black deer, as most hunting laws don’t distinguish between melanistic and normal deer.

However, most hunters will not shoot a deer with a genetic anomaly. There are several potential reasons for this.

Perhaps the most common one is the hope that sparing a melanistic Whitetail deer will preserve the feature and allow these unique animals to continue to breed.

But we should remember that animals with genetic anomalies have a harder time surviving in the wild. This is one reason they are so rare. Melanistic or albino animals are easier to spot, which means predators will see and eat these animals more often.

As black deer are incredibly rare, you will probably never encounter one while hunting.

Can You Shoot an Albino or Piebald Deer (and should you)?

As is the case with black deer, this is usually an individual decision. However, some areas have laws prohibiting hunting albino deer or deer with any white on them (Piebald).

Check and find out the laws and rules in your region before the hunting season begins.

It’s also worth noting that some cultures give albino deer special significance and recognize unique symbolism in these deer.

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Piebald deer can easily be mistaken for normal deer from a distance. Some piebald deer have very little discoloration, so they could easily be killed before the hunter realizes it is a piebald deer.

Can Any Deer Species Be Melanistic?

Hypothetically, yes. Considering the first melanistic white-tailed deer was recorded in 1929, there could be black specimens from other species (in addition to Fallow Deer) that we haven’t discovered yet.

Remember that some non-melanistic deer have slightly darker coats than average. In other words, just because the coat looks a bit dark doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a black deer.

Elk and moose, for example, have darker coats than a whitetail deer, but they are not black and do not possess this recessive gene. (Read a full comparison of Elk and Moose here)

Furthermore, coat coloration may change throughout the year.

As a result, a deer’s coat may be darker in some seasons and lighter in others. This is not the result of a recessive gene. It’s normal in many types of animals.

Final Thoughts about Melanistic Deer

Melanistic deer are extraordinarily rare, with most estimates guessing that only 1 in every 500,000 deer is melanistic. If you spot one, consider yourself lucky! Most hunters and deer watchers will go their entire lives without seeing a black deer.

Let’s review the most fundamental facts about black deer:

  • These deer have dark, or even black, coats.
  • Melanism can occur in any deer species.
  • White-tailed and fallow deer are the only species where melanistic deer have been documented.
  • The first melanistic deer sighting was in 1929.
  • Melanism is extremely rare in deer.
  • Melanism is caused by a recessive gene mutation in the melanocortin 1 receptor gene (MC1R).
  • Deer populations with high inbreeding levels are more prone to melanism.
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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>