Wild Profile: Meet the mule deer

A male mule deer surrounded by scrubby vegetation By Sean R. Stubben/Shutterstock

Late fall is a big time for mule deer: the rut has begun! Males matched in size duke it out for the right to mate with a chosen female. They’ll lock antlers and fight for hours. Eventually, the weaker mule deer gives up.

Although the mule deer looks similar to the white-tailed deer, the larger species sticks to Western Canada and the Yukon. They’re suited to arid prairie environments and the Rocky Mountains, where they feed mostly on herbaceous plants and woody shrubs as opposed to grass. Even though they have a four-chambered stomach like cows and elk, they’re not as good at digesting certain plants. They have to be choosy about what they eat in order to get enough nutrients

Mule deer sometimes travel by “stotting”: bounding into the air in four-footed leaps. (Gazelle move this way too.) Experts don’t know exactly why they do this. After all, it takes a lot of energy and it’s more likely to attract the attention of predators. That said, one possible reason could be that the deer hopes to show the potential predator that it’s physically fit and healthy. And therefore, will be able to escape. (“Don’t bother coming after me, wolf. You won’t be able to catch me anyway.”)

Mule deer are an iconic species of Western North America; there are nearly a dozen subspecies. They all vary slightly depending on where they live. Black-tailed deer, for example, are a subspecies of mule deer found in the coastal regions of northwestern North America.

In some areas, a mule deer’s range overlaps with white-tailed deer habitat, and the two species do sometimes hybridize. But, ID tip time! The mule deer has big, mule-like ears (about three quarters of the length of its head). Bucks, meanwhile, also have more of a forked antler structure; white-tailed deer have points that grow from a central branch.

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