From time to time here on the blog, I’m going to feature entries from one of the 101 Travel Bits books. Today, I’m featuring 101 Travel Bits: The Overseas Highway, available for purchase at Amazon on Kindle, the Kindle app (for any phone or tablet) or in paperback.

Today, an entry on Key Deer – specifically, the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge. On our most recent trip to the Keys, Paul and I got off of the Overseas Highway to have lunch at a small restaurant/pub a little off of the beaten track. On our way there, eagle-eyed Paul saw the little guy in the picture below on Big Pine Key – the first living Key Deer I had seen in many trips to the Keys.

At eight miles long and two miles wide, Big Pine Key is the second largest of the Keys after Key Largo. Big Pine Key is also the headquarters of the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge, a refuge established in 1957 to protect the Key Deer.

Depending on whom you ask, the Key Deer is either a subspecies of the white-tailed deer or its own species. Unlike the white-tailed deer seen elsewhere in the United States, the Key Deer has one very noticeable difference: it is a deer in miniature form. At only two and a half feet tall and less than 75 pounds, the Key Deer is less than half the size of a typical white-tailed deer. The fawns are only two to four pounds at birth, and their hooves leave fingerprint-sized prints in the ground.

When first discovered by the Spanish in 1575, the Key Deer were found on most of the Middle Keys and all the way to Key West; the Spanish used the small deer as a food source and their population decreased as they and subsequent visitors and residents on the islands did the same. The deer’s wide range in an era prior to the bridges was a result of their ability to swim; although most deer and their relatives can swim, Key Deer seem to be the best swimmers in the deer family. Despite their initial range throughout much of the Keys, by the 1940s, there were fewer than 50 Key Deer remaining.

Today, the population of Key Deer hovers around 1,000 animals. About 75 percent of the Key Deer are on Big Pine Key and its nearby neighbor, No Name Key. Both of these Keys are well-populated by humans, and anyone traveling down the Overseas Highway can’t fail to miss the signs warning travelers to slow down as they arrive on Big Pine Key. In an effort to keep the Key Deer from being killed on the Highway—their major cause of death—the road is elevated across much of Big Pine Key. Unfortunately, thirty to forty Key Deer still die on the road each year.

Thanks to the efforts of many to preserve the Key Deer, it is likely at its highest sustainable population on Big Pine Key and No Name Key. Efforts to reintroduce the animal on other Keys have begun. One day, the Key Deer may roam throughout the Middle and Upper Keys; for now, if one wants to see this unique mammal, the best place to do so is on Big Pine Key and No Name Key.

Link: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – National Key Deer Refuge