Meet the World’s Smallest Deer
THE year was 1935. A Chilean farmer was tilling his soil in the beautiful mountainous region of Curicó. Suddenly, he heard dogs chasing what he assumed to be a rabbit. Imagine his surprise when a beagle-sized animal, looking somewhat like a goat, ran out of the woods and took refuge between his legs. Looking down at the trembling creature, the farmer recognized it as a pudu, the smallest deer in the world.
This harmless little deer is seldom seen, since it lives in isolated areas of the highlands. It ventures out only to eat fruits, leaves, and other vegetation but runs quickly for cover when its keen senses of hearing and smell warn it of danger. The pudu prefers thickly forested regions, since exposure to direct sunlight for as little as three hours can cause its death.
So little is known of this timid creature that only about the turn of the century did zoologists realize that it is not a goat or a sheep. They identified it as a deer, since the male loses its 2.5- to 3.5-inch (6 to 9 cm) spikes, or antlers, once a year. There are, in fact, two types of pudus. The variety once abundant in southern Chile and Argentina has fur of a reddish color. A northern cousin in the jungles of Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador is a bit darker in color. About 16 inches (40 cm) high and from 28 to 31 inches (70 to 80 cm) long, the pudu weighs about 22 pounds (10 kg) when fully grown. The animal has a distinct wedge shape, since its front legs are a bit shorter than its hind legs.
Threatened Little Survivor
Although the pudu is extremely shy, it apparently likes humans and can come to trust them. Many pudus have followed sheep or cattle in from grazing, only to be chased away by the farmer’s dogs. Often, researchers who win the confidence of a pudu will be rewarded by having their hands or face licked by their new friend. One veterinary investigator made friends with a female pudu that jumped up onto his lap, licked his face, and then pushed him with her head toward her nest, apparently to show him her newborn offspring.
While the pudu has such natural enemies as the fox, the puma, wildcats, and owls, its greatest foe is man. In the past, the little deer roamed more freely, using its speed and intelligence to elude predators. The pudu has been known to double back on its own tracks or to swim upriver to deceive a fox or a puma. But now, with the destruction of forests by man, the pudu’s domain is steadily shrinking. So the pudu has taken to living in tunnels made in the thick underbrush. Being a tidy animal, it has distinct places in its tunnels for eating, for sleeping, and for excreting, and it does not vary these throughout life. Familiarity with the tunnels is its key to survival. Although the pudu is a fast runner and a fairly rapid swimmer, it is easy prey in the open field. But this is not so within its tunnels where, one researcher says, “it flies like a bullet,” leaving behind the pursuer.
Although hunting the pudu is prohibited, some unscrupulous men have learned to catch or kill this peaceful little creature. These hunters are motivated by a desire for the animal’s rich fur, tasty meat, or the price foreign zoos are willing to pay for a healthy specimen. They have trained small dogs to flush the pudu out of the tunnels and into the open. But since pudus can outswim a dog, they head for the nearest river where men wait in boats to catch them. The animals are often injured, and according to one investigator, as many as 80 percent simply die of fright.
You see, shyness is the pudu’s weakness. When scared, its eyes seem to fill with tears, it shivers, its hair stands on end, and often the animal dies of a heart attack. For this reason, even though pudus have been domesticated by rural families and universities, these deer do not seem to live long in captivity. They often die without any apparent cause, victims of the stress of captivity. The pudu loves freedom.
It was feared that the pudu would soon join the list of 68 species of mammals that have become extinct in this century. However, recent studies by one researcher working with the World Wildlife Foundation suggest that the pudu may be surviving after all. How? By learning to adapt to new circumstances with its tunnel system. This is not the case with the Chilean mountain lion, or puma, which is clearly in danger of extinction. How often it is true that in stressful or changing circumstances it is better to be adaptable and friendly than fierce and aggressive!
Let’s hope that the pudu can survive until the peaceful new system, when such creatures can leave their protective tunnels and come out into the open to enjoy freedom without fear. Will you be there to meet the world’s smallest deer?
[Picture Credit Line on page 26]
New York Zoological Society photos