Teen-aged girls and their moms who watch Twilight movies, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and other blood-sucking shows may want to steer clear of Frio County. The vampire bucks are there.
Not really, but the examination of the upper jaw of a Frio County whitetail surprised Shiner Ranch manager Jason Sekula.
“It had pronounced upper canines,” he said.
After the first set was noticed a few years ago, Sekula started looking more carefully at the upper jaws, which is not typically examined as closely because the lower jaws are used for aging purposes.
“We have found a fair number, but we kill quite a few deer,” he said.
At the 15,000-acre ranch, “we kill or transport 300 deer per year, but we had one or two with canines this year and two last year,” he said.
“And that’s what we noticed.”
Curiosity caused him as a wildlife biologist to look for research on the phenomenon, and he learned the trait was extremely rare, involving far less than 1 percent of the animals.
“I would say that our percentage is a hair higher than elsewhere,” Sekula said. “I reviewed some check-station research and it seems the southern states have a few more than the northern states.”
Chris Huey, a wildlife biologist, consultant and ranch manager at the Chaparosa Ranch in La Pryor might say that Sekula is understating the phenomenon at his ranch.
“I’ve been around at least 10,000 dead deer in my career — and we look,” he said. “I’ve never seen it.”
Huey said he has seen pictures of the upper canines in magazines, but never in the wild.
“It’s definitely a trait, but that’s all I know,” he said.
Sekula checked with some of the large South Texas ranches to see if they were observing the canines.
At the King Ranch and the Machen Ranch, managers reported one whitetail each with upper canines in the past six to eight years.
“At ranches that large and well-managed, that would be from looking at thousands of deer,” Sekula said.
Wildlife biologists at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute have heard of the trait, but like most, have not seen it much or studied it.
“It happens occasionally,” said research scientist Randy DeYoung. “And there have been a few reports of a concentration of the canines in certain areas. There was a report in San Patricio County in the 1960s of something in the neighborhood of 17 percent of the whitetails with canines.”
The Quality Deer Management Association looked at the issue in 2002, and executive director Brian Murphy wrote of one theory:
“Upper canines are a rare but documented phenomenon in whitetails, and that researchers believe it is an evolutionary throwback to the ancestral form of the whitetail which occasionally surfaces today.”
DeYoung said that was the most popular theory for the trait.
Other researchers looked back even further. A 1963 report by Lawrence Ryel from the Michigan Department of Conservation found upper canines were identified in whitetails from Central America to Saskatchewan, ranging from 0.14 percent of deer in New York to 4.2 percent in Florida. Ryel’s report also mentioned the frequency of upper canines appeared to increase from North to South as these teeth are more prevalent in Central American whitetails.
The researchers referred to upper canines in ancestral deer and in some modern deer cousins. Elk, Chinese water deer, muntjacs (males only), musk deer, Peré David’s deer, sambar and tufted deer are said to be modern relatives of whitetails with upper canines.
Since the researchers believe the whitetail evolved from deer that originated in Asia, and some of those early species had canines, they believe the genetic link has weakened but not completely disappeared.
Sekula believes there are more deer with the trait, but they go unnoticed.
“A lot of hunters don’t check the upper jaw,” he said. “And some may have seen it but not realized it was out of the ordinary.”
Hunters may want to start looking, and if they come across a whitetail with upper canines, keep the skull — it’s rare. Except maybe at the Shiner Ranch, where it’s not quite so rare.