Frequently Asked Questions about Key Deer

Doe pic 500px

Click a question to find out the answer:

Q: How big are Key deer?

Q: Aren’t Key deer just white-tailed deer?

Q: How long have Key deer been in the Florida Keys? How did they get here?

Q: What do Key deer eat?

Q: Why do Key deer sometimes look unhealthy or emaciated in the spring?

Q: What can I do to help Key deer?

Q: Are Key deer going to go extinct?

Q: What are the biggest threats to Key deer? 

Q: I think that I found a screwworm fly - What do I do? 

Q: Why don’t we provide fresh water to Key deer?

Q: What kind of habitats do Key deer depend on? 

Q: Am I allowed to install a fence on my property on Big Pine Key/No Name Key?

Q: What predators do Key deer have?

Q: How long do Key deer live?

Q: Who started the National Key Deer Refuge, and when?

Q: What other wildlife live on National Key Deer Refuge?

Q: What do I do if I see an injured Key deer?

Q: Why do so many Key deer get hit by cars?

Q: What happened to New World Screwworm? Did the Key deer survive?

Q: How did Hurricane Irma impact the deer herd?

Q: What does the Refuge do for the Key deer?

Q: Where can I see them?

Q: Why can't we feed Key deer?

 


  

Buck and fawn noni 150px Q: How big are Key deer? A: The largest males typically stand only about 1 meter at the shoulder and weigh a maximum of around 80-100 lbs. Females are smaller, weighing 65 pounds on average.  Key deer fawns are about the size of a small housecat.

Q: Aren’t Key deer just white-tailed deer? A: Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) are a subspecies of the white-tailed deer (O. virginianus) – a species found across North America.  They are genetically divergent from their larger cousins due to the geographic isolation they experienced at the end of the last Ice Age. Key deer are much smaller in stature and body weight, are adapted to a salt-tolerant island lifestyle with a subtropical climate.  This climate allows them to reproduce during any time of the year; however, the peak of fawning occurs during the spring and summer months.  

Q: How long have Key deer been in the Florida Keys? How did they get here? A: Here’s a quick geology lesson of the Florida Keys.  During the last glacial maximium (“Ice Age”) about 18,000 years ago, the landmass of Florida extended all the way out past the Dry Tortugas.  This Ice Age is called the “Pleistocene Epoch” – if you were alive at this time, you might have also seen Woolly mammoths wandering the planet.  As the glaciers retreated, or melted, about 8,000 years later, the sea level rose, leaving the Florida Keys as islands separated from the mainland.  While Key deer may have been a much closer relative to the mainland white-tailed deer prior to the last Ice Age, they have become genetically divergent because they do not intermix with their mainland cousins.  Geographic isolation has caused the Key deer to become a separate subspecies over thousands of years.  Pretty interesting, right?

Buck foraging WattsQ: What do Key deer eat? A: There are over 150 plant species that are considered Key deer food, which varies throughout the year.  Key deer especially enjoy red mangrove leaves and fruits, black mangrove fruits, Indian mulberry, silver and thatch palm berries, blackbead leaves, grasses, pencil flower, acacia and wild dilly (Dooley 1975, Klimstra and Dooley 1990).

 Q: Why do Key deer sometimes look unhealthy or emaciated in the spring? A: The spring marks the end of the dry season in our subtropical climate.  During this time, trees, shrubs, flowering plants and grasses are especially thirsty, as they await the start of the summer rainy season.  Because these plants are stressed during this time, there is a lower water content, little new growth, and fewer nutrients available to the Key deer.  Solution hole 500pxAdditionally, freshwater sources such as solution holes, freshwater marshes and rain puddles are more scarce during the spring, which can alter how wildlife are able to absorb nutrients into their body.  Key deer and other Keys wildlife have adapted over thousands of years to withstand this fluctuation in climate and rainfall, but they can look alarmingly skinny to a resident or visitor.  Please be mindful of this, and keep wildlife wild. As soon as the rainy season begins, plants will begin to produce fresh, new leaves and the wildlife will happily forage on them. 

Q: What can I do to help Key deer? A: Thanks for offering! There are many things that you can do to help Key deer.  Here are just a few:

Drive slowly and enjoy the view.  Please follow the speed limits in the Lower Keys, and watch out for crossing deer – especially when they are most active, in the morning and evening.

 Don’t feed the deer, and educate others to do the same.  Feeding Key deer attracts them toward cars and neighborhoods, making them more susceptible to getting hit by cars, increases the spread of disease like “lumpy jaw”, and increases their risk of poaching.  If you see someone feeding a deer, please have a friendly conversation about the harm they are causing to our local wildlife. 

Deer eating trash 500pxSecure your trash, yard waste and recycling.  The Key deer herds often patrol neighborhoods looking for human trash and yard waste, and some locals even think that they memorize the trash truck schedule!  By covering and locking your trashcans to prevent them from spilling over, you are potentially saving Key deer from getting hit by cars.  Deer will hang out on the side of the roads picking through spilled cans, not aware of approaching vehicle traffic. 

Volunteer for the Refuge! There a lots of fun ongoing projects that help Key deer, their habitats, and the other wildlife species found on the Refuge.  Contact the Refuge Visitor Center to become a volunteer.

Q: Are Key deer going to go extinct?  A: The Key deer population has grown tremendously and are doing quite well since they were listed as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1967.  They now have suitable, protected habitat, and plenty of food and water to survive in the Lower Florida Keys.  However, derived analyses from sea level rise predictions (IPCC 2014, NASA 2017, NOAA 2017) are estimating that many of the primary sources of freshwater for the Key deer – the freshwater lenses – will likely be seasonally or permanently inundated with saltwater by 2100.  Sea level rise and storm surge events will likely also impact the habitats on which wildlife depend, as has already been documented on Upper Sugarloaf Key (Ross et al. 1994).  Although there is uncertainty in the magnitude of sea level rise models, we will continue to be concerned about the long-term outlook for Key deer and all of the other freshwater-dependent species in the Florida Keys.

Literature Cited:

IPCC.  2014.  Climate change 2014 synthesis report.  IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).

National Air and Space Administration (NASA).  2017.  Global climate change: vital signs of the planet.  <https://climate.nasa.gov>.

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  2017.  Global and regional sea level rise scenarios for the United States.  NOAA Technical Report NOSA CO-OPS 083.

Ross, M. S., J. J. O’Brien, and L. da Silveira Lobo Sternberg.  1994.  Sea-level rise and the reduction in pine forests in the Florida Keys.  Ecological Applications 4:144–156.

Q: What are the biggest threats to Key deer?  A: Vehicle collisions are currently the number one threat to Key deer.  In addition, disease and freshwater availability issues have the potential to destabilize the population.  In 2016, New World Screwworm severely impacted the Key deer population with the loss of 135 deer in less than one year.  For more information on the impacts of New World Screwworm on the Key deer herd, Click Here

Q: I think that I found a screwworm fly - What do I do?  A: eport suspected cases in Key deer to the FWC Response Hotline (305-470-6863). Report suspected cases in pets or livestock to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services by calling 1-800-HELP-FLA. Check out this brochure for more info.

Q: Why don’t we provide fresh water to Key deer?  A: The Key deer is a wild animal, and needs to remain part of the ecosystem.  Naturally fluctuations in resources available to wildlife (e.g. food, water or shelter) can cause an increase or a decrease in their populations, forming the basis for wildlife population dynamics.  If artificial fresh water were made available to Key deer, we would be artificially augmenting the population, and changing their behavior as they become acclimated to this new source.  Artificial fresh water sources also become reservoirs for disease, causing the spread of disease such as “Lumpy Jaw” or Johnes Disease to more deer in a shorter amount of time.  Providing artificial water sources in suburban areas increases their chances of getting hit by cars, or being entangled in fencing.  And finally, once that artificial fresh water is no longer available, the welfare of the deer are compromised, as they do not have the resources that they need to survive.

hammock teaser picQ: What kind of habitats do Key deer depend on? A: Key deer depend on all of the terrestrial habitats of the Lower Florida Keys.  Pine rocklands and freshwater marshes provide the freshwater that Key deer and other wildlife species need to survive.  Tropical hardwood hammocks, transitional buttonwood mangroves, mixed mangrove forests and beach berm communities provide food sources and cover.

Q: Am I allowed to install a fence on my property on Big Pine Key/No Name Key?  A: As part of the Big Pine Key/No Name Key Habitat Conservation Plan, parcels within the Tier 1 area have limitations on the installation of fencing. Perimeter fence may impede the ability for a Key deer to avoid vehicles by not allowing successful escape onto nearby properties. The USFWS South Florida Ecological Services Office in Vero Beach coordinates fencing in the area as it relates to the Big Pine Key/No Name Key Habitat Conservation Plan. For additional information, contact the Ecological Services office, and click here to read a 2010 letter from the USFWS Ecological Services Office to Monroe County that outlines potential fencing solutions that meet the HCP requirements.

 

 Q: What predators do Key deer have?  A: The primary predators of Key deer fawns are American alligators and American crocodiles.  On occasion, residents will report an alligator or crocodile having eaten an adult deer, but it is thought to be a rare occurrence.  Adult Key deer do not have other natural predators, with the exception of the human-driven car.

Q: How long do Key deer live? A: The average life expectancy of a female Key deer is 6.5 years, and of a male is 2.9 years.  The oldest observed deer was a female that was 19 years old.

Q: Who started the National Key Deer Refuge, and when? A: The National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect and preserve in the national interest the Key deer and other wildlife resources in the Florida Keys.

Q: What other wildlife live on National Key Deer Refuge? A: National Key Deer Refuge hosts over 250 bird species, numerous tropical butterflies, and over 40 reptile species. Here you will find 22 federally endangered plant and animal species, in addition to many state-threatened species.  Check out the Wildlife and Habitat section of our website for more info, and visit the Refuge Visitor Center located on Big Pine Key.

Q: What do I do if I see an injured Key deer? A: If you see an injured Key deer, do not try to handle it. Take note of the location, time of day, age and sex of the deer, and call the FWC Key Deer Hotline at 305-470-6863, extension #7 as soon as possible.  For more information on the Key Deer Hotline, Click Here.

Q: Why do so many Key deer get hit by cars? A: The islands in the Lower Keys were undeveloped until just the last few centuries, providing ample space for Key deer movement and dispersal across their range.  When humans began to develop Big Pine Key and adjacent islands, roads, highways, walking paths and bike trails were also constructed to accommodate the new residents – this caused a fragmentation of the Key deer habitat that Key deer sign 150pxpermanently impacted the herd.  Key deer, as with all other deer species, move across the landscape daily and seasonally to find food, mates, fresh water and shelter.  In order to do so, they need to cross roads.

Monroe County, Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Key Deer Refuge and the community have partnered over the last 3 decades to install vehicle speed restriction signs, information placards, and have enforced reduced speed limits to help minimize Key deer mortalities.  A 1.5 mile-long fence and underpasses have also been installed along sections of the highway to allow Key deer and other wildlife to safely cross.  We encourage residents and visitors to follow the speed limits, drive carefully, and watch out for crossing deer – especially during the morning and evening hours.

  

Q: What happened to New World Screwworm? Did the Key deer survive?  A: Although the New World Screwworm infestation in 2016 caused the mortalities of some of our largest male deer and a few females, the population as a whole has recovered quite well.  Many fawns were born during the summer of 2017, returning to a stable and healthy herd.  For more information on the impacts of New World Screwworm on the Key deer herd, Click Here.

Q: How did Hurricane Irma impact the deer herd? A: Key deer demonstrated their resilience during and following Hurricane Irma hitting the Lower Florida Keys in mid-September 2017.  The Refuge documented just over 20 deer mortalities following the storm, and estimated the population to be about 949 individuals in October 2017.  Irma_radarThis species (as with many other Keys wildlife species) has adapted to overcome the many hurdles of living in the Florida Keys, including the spread of diseases across the population, seasonal drought, human development, and the stresses of major storms, including high winds, storm surge, wave action, and heavy rainfall.  For more information, check out the Hurricane Irma Key Deer Report.

Q: What does the Refuge do for the Key deer? A: The National Key Deer Refuge was established to provide habitat for Key deer and other wildlife species.  Today, the Refuge owns and maintains over 9,200 acres of habitat within the Key deer range.  The primary habitats that Key deer depend on – pine rocklands – are maintained periodically through prescribed fire, vegetation thinning and invasive plant species control.  The Refuge partners with state and local law enforcement agencies to maintain a Key Deer Hotline – a response system for reporting sick, injured and dead deer.  The Refuge biological staff run population survey throughout each year, and collect mortality data to monitor the deer.  As part of a long-term herd health monitoring program, National Key Deer Refuge has been working with the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine for over a decade to monitor the herd for parasites and other abnormalities that may affect them.  In addition, we provide outreach and educational opportunities throughout the year for residents and visitors to learn about Key deer and their habitats.  Our Friends Group, FAVOR Florida Keys, even hosts a 5K Run with Key Deer event in March to raise money for Key deer educational programs and the annual Florida Keys Refuges Outdoor Fest.

Q: Where can I see the Key deer? A: The easiest time of day to find Key deer is early in the morning or just before sunset, when they are most active.  Key deer are most commonly found on Big Pine Key – look for them at the Blue Hole, and near the Watson Nature Trail.

Q: Why can't we feed Key deer? A: Every year, the National Key Deer Refuge responds to hundreds of Key deer emergency calls, most of which are the direct result of human activities.  Feeding Key deer attracts them to roadsides and neighborhoods, exposing them to cars, dog attacks, an unhealthy diet, hazardous garbage, entanglements, disease issues, and even poaching.  For more information, check out our brochure on Keeping Wildlife Wild.