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Key Deer

Key Deer with radio collar

Odocoileus virginianus clavium                              Photo Fiona Sunquist ©


Key deer live on the islands in the lower Florida Keys. They are the smallest race of white-tailed deer in North America and are about the size and weight of a golden retriever.

Key deer were isolated on the lower Florida Keys some 6-12 thousand years ago following a rise in sea level that occurred when the last glaciers melted. They are now recorded on 26 islands between Spanish Harbor Bridge and Boca Chica. They often swim from island to island.

Hunting reduced the population to less than 50 animals in the 1940’s. Increased law enforcement and the establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge in 1957 provided protection for both deer and habitat. By 1973-74 the herd stabilized at 350-400, of which 70% were on Big Pine Key. Numbers are currently estimated at 700-800. Access to permanent freshwater limits their distribution.

Key deer have a diverse diet, and eat both native and planted species but their primary food source is red mangrove. They also feed on gumbo limbo, hibiscus, and browse other woody plants.

Key deer live in loose matriarchal groups consisting of an adult female with one or two generations of offspring. Breeding begins in September and peaks in October. Fawns are born after a 204-day gestation anytime between March and May. Twins are rare.

Road kills are the greatest cause of deer deaths. In 1998 highway mortality accounted for 67% of known deaths, with a total number of 90 deer killed on the road. Most road kills occur on US Highway 1 on Big Pine Key and Key Deer Boulevard.

Road signs for Key Deer

                                                                            Photo Fiona Sunquist ©

Key deer are fully protected under the Endangered Species Act. However, Big Pine Key is home to more than 4,000 humans and an array of endangered or threatened species. But it is the deer that has drawn the most attention and inspired most of the conflict on the island.

Traditionally, human development is considered the primary threat to Key deer. Humans inhabit approximately half the islands in the deer’s range and eight islands have large subdivisions and considerable commercial development. During the 1980’s the human population of Big Pine Key increased by 77%.

A major conflict exists between area residents who have basically divided themselves into two groups. One group arguing for private property rights believes the regulations in place to protect the deer are too restrictive. The other group see themselves as public stewards of a natural resource that belongs to everyone.

Though some Key deer habitat is owned and managed by the State, ultimately, the management and survival of Key deer depends on the cooperation of private landowners.

Some Key deer are currently being translocated to other keys in a preliminary study to try to establish two other separate populations.



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Wildlife of Florida 2011
Wildlife of Florida 2011
Fiona Sunquist
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Wildlife of Florida: Lizards
Fiona Sunquist
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