5 Fun Facts About Mule Deer

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, but do you recall your local mule deer at all?

In this winter wildlife blog series, we’ll be exploring some fun facts about the wildlife that live in our watershed and how they adapt to winter conditions. We’re kicking things off with 5 fun facts about Rudolph’s local cousin, the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus).

Courtesy Kelsey Fitzgerald, Truckee River Guide

#1: They have really big ears!

Mule deer may not have Rudolph’s red nose, but they do have an equally distinct characteristic – their big ears, which is why they’re called “mule” deer. They also have a black-tipped tail, which makes them easy to distinguish from whitetail deer.

#2: Their antlers can grow up to ¼” per day.

Just like reindeer, mule deer have antlers, but unlike reindeer, only mule deer males grow horns. (Fun side fact – Santa’s reindeer are technically female.  Older male reindeer shed their horns in December and wouldn’t be donning them come Christmas time). For both species, antlers are bones that grow out of the skull each year and are protected by a skin-like velvet during their development. This antler growth is regulated by a special hormone in the anterior pituitary, which is controlled by the length of daylight. During the longer days in late-spring and early-summer, the antlers on a large, mature male can grow up to ¼” per day.

#3: They can do a 180 in mid-air.

Although mule deer can’t actually fly, they can do some amazing maneuvers on the ground, including “stotting.” This is where they spring into the air and lift all four feet at the same time. This helps them to move quickly across rough terrain and see above thick brush. They can also change direction or do a mid-air 180 in a single bound. At a full sprint, they can reach speeds up to 45 miles per hour. These are all great advantages when being chased by hungry predators!

#4: They can starve even with a full stomach.

Mule deer are herbivores with a diverse plant diet, but not all plants are created equal and some have very high cellulose content, which is difficult  to digest. Similar to other ruminant animals, like reindeer and cows, deer have a special 4-chambered stomach that uses bacteria to ferment and digest food. However, sometimes that food has so much cellulose that it takes too long to digest. A deer can starve even when its stomach is full. To ensure this doesn’t happen, deer seek out plants with low-cellulose first before resorting to things like bark and pine needles. It is particularly important they stock up on healthy foods during the warmer months to build up enough fat stores to survive in the winter, when it’s slim pickings and only cellulose-rich foods are available. This is why your pretty flowers and veggie gardens are so appealing to them!

#5: They migrate to lower elevations in the winter.

And how do mule deer adapt to living in the snow? Just like Rudolph and his (her!) other reindeer pals, mule deer aren’t afraid of a little snow. But when cold and snowy weather hits, they do move down to lower elevations to get better access to food. If you live in the foothills, you’ve probably been seeing lots of these guys around lately. If you are itching to see some deer to enhance your holiday spirit, take a nice drive (or bike ride) out to Verdi where they hang out in droves —  fitting as they are the local elementary school’s mascot.


The Truckee River Guide

American Expedition

Nevada Department of Wildlife

Wide Open Spaces