Like all animals, deer one day die. Yes, it’s a sad reality, but they don’t take all their secrets to the grave. If you find a deer carcass or skeleton while hunting, scouting or shed hunting, you can learn a lot by examining the body to determine the animal’s age, gender or cause of death.
Dr. Larry Marchinton, a retired wildlife professor at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, shared his insights with us.
“Determining the cause of death, sex, age and condition of a dead deer can tell a hunter or deer manager a great deal about the deer herd,” Marchinton said. “The general condition of the animal when it died gives clues as to whether deer are too numerous, or if they’re well within the habitat’s carrying capacity, and therefore, healthy and productive.”
In other words, dead deer can help ensure we properly manage habitat, and follow conservation practices that sustain healthy white-tailed deer populations.
Let’s review what you can learn from dead deer.
It’s difficult to determine what killed a deer when looking at a white-boned skeleton. However, if the deer died recently, examine the body for an arrow or bullet wound, which likely means it was shot by a hunter but not recovered. If it has broken bones, it was probably hit by a car or truck. Bruised meat indicates it was alive when struck.
Tooth or claw marks might indicate predation, but it’s more likely that scavengers like coyotes, opossums, vultures or weasels are feeding on the carcass. Adult deer are fast and smart, and can elude most predators. Bobcats and mountain lions kill deer, but Marchinton said it’s rare in most regions. When cats kill deer, they usually cover the carcass with leaves and grass. You’ll probably see scratch marks in the ground where the cat raked the debris.
If disease killed the deer, you might find evidence in its hoofs, mouth and tongue. Epizootic hemorrhagic disease can make hoofs fall off, and produce sores or lesions on the mouth and tongue. Deer with EHD are often found dead near water. Other diseases, such as chronic wasting disease, leave deer skinny and emaciated, but only a laboratory test can confirm CWD. Injured deer can also show common clinical signs of CWD. Marchinton, in fact, said identifying most diseases requires a necropsy or analysis by specialists.
If the carcass is fresh, its genitalia can reveal its gender. If you find a skeleton, check the skull for antlers or pedicels, the base that generates antlers each year. If you can’t find the skull or genitals, examine the pelvic girdle, which can help determine a deer’s gender.
Marchinton and his colleagues detailed those clues in research published in 1982 in the Journal of Wildlife Management. They detailed differences in the shape and location of a bony growth near the hip socket on deer. In a doe, this growth is on the rim of the hip socket has a sharp edge, and usually looks flattened or shelf-like. In bucks, this growth is rounded or oval-shaped, and located a quarter- to half-inch above the socket’s rim.
Determining the gender of younger whitetails is difficult because that growth on the pelvises of deer age 1 or younger aren’t prominent or fully developed.
Marchinton said the easiest way to determine a deer’s age is to check its teeth for wear and other clues. Check out the Indiana Department of Natural Resources website, which explains how deer teeth wear through time. Fawns typically have four or five teeth. Yearlings have six teeth, but likely still have the tricuspid, a tooth with three distinct ridges, as their third tooth. The tricuspid is usually replaced by a permanent bicuspid, a tooth with two ridges, when the deer is 2.5 years old.
After that, deer can be aged by tooth wear. On 2.5-year-old deer, the fourth tooth shows little wear and still has a defined point. For 3.5-year-old deer, the fourth tooth is worn so the dentine – the tooth’s soft, brown inner core – is as wide or wider than the enamel, the tooth’s hard, white outer surface.
On 4.5-year-old deer, the fifth tooth often wears away, but the sixth tooth retains a defined point. On deer 5.5 years or older, all teeth show heavy wear. Only small amounts of enamel remain on the third and fourth teeth.
Click here to see detailed pictures and descriptions by the Indiana DNR.
To confirm a carcass’ age or gender, consider contacting a laboratory, which will test deer for a small fee. The Matson’s Laboratory, for example,checks the tooth’s annual cementum rings – a thin, bony material that fixes teeth to the jaw – to determine its age. This process is much like counting rings on a tree trunk, and is more accurate than a visual tooth inspection.
Marchington also suggests contacting a local state-agency biologist or the Quality Deer Management Association for more information.