The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 23, 2013

Black deer among nature’s rarities

By Clint Ferguson
For The Register-Herald

BECKLEY — A few weeks ago, Joan Robinson contacted me after she noticed something out of the usual while driving along a Hampshire County backroad in the Eastern Panhandle. It was so unusual she even questioned herself at what her eyes were actually seeing.

On her Sunday drive, Joan saw two deer running, which isn’t unusual at all on a West Virginia backroad. However, one of them stood out as it was black as coal.

“We were just driving along when I noticed two deer running away. The one was a normal color deer and the other was pure black with a white tail,” Joan said.

The black deer Joan saw is also known as a melanistic deer and is extremely rare in nature. I only know of one other black deer sighting and that was a few years ago as one was hanging out along Interstate 79 near the Roanoke rest area in Lewis County.

My buddy saw it and said it looked like a black dog feeding among three other deer. When he pulled over to take a closer look, it was indeed a black deer. He actually saw it a couple of times in that area while passing through.

Melanism is a very unusual genetic color variation and results from an overproduction of the pigment known as melanin. Animals with this melanistic trait have dark coats ranging from chocolate brown to pure black. It’s extremely rare in whitetail deer, even more rare than albinism.  

It is estimated that 1 deer out of 30,000 is a “true” albino. Another more common color phase of whitetail deer is called piebald. Piebald simply means covered with patches of two colors. Piebald deer have both white and brown colors on their coats. It is believed that 1 deer out of 1,000 displays this genetic trait.

One thing that’s interesting about melanistic deer is that they still have the white underside on their tails despite the rest of their body being covered with black hair, just like Joan described in her encounter. There is a concentrated pocket of melanisitc deer found in an 8-county area of central Texas. This particular area is believed to contain more black deer than found anywhere else in the entire world.   

There are other animals that display the melanistic black coloring, such as guinea pigs, penguins (1 in 30,000), owls, zebras, rabbits, mallards (both male and female), frogs and toads and the most common being melanistic leopards and jaguars which are also known as black panthers.

Note that black panthers are actually melanistic jaguars or leopards which are found in South America. There are always the stories of reported mountain lion and black panther sightings here in West Virginia, but melanism doesn’t occur in mountain lions. According to Wikipedia, “There are no authenticated cases of truly melanistic cougars (pumas). Melanistic cougars have never been photographed or shot in the wild and none has ever been bred. Unconfirmed sightings, known as the ‘North American black panther,’ are currently attributed to errors in species identification by non-experts, and by the memetic exaggeration of size.”  

Another species that melanism is commonly found in is the Eastern grey squirrel. I’ve seen black squirrels and know several others who have as well. Large natural populations of black squirrels exist throughout Ontario and in parts of Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Wisconsin. A neat tidbit, according to Wikipedia” “Eighteen Canadian black squirrels were released at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., near the beginning of the 20th century during President Theodore Roosevelt’s administraion. Since their introduction, the population of black squirrels in and near Washington have slowly but steadily increased, and black squirrels now account for up to half of the squirrel population in certain locations, such as the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral.”

Nature is always fascinating and it’s neat to here of the not-so-common things that sometimes occur. Joan’s sighting of the black deer in Hampshire County was more than rare to say the least. So rare, that scientists still don’t know fully about the exact cause of melanism in whitetail deer, other than it’s an overproduction of pigment.

Keep your eyes open when you’re out and about in Wild and Wonderful, as you never know what you might see.