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Superior size and antler development in populations of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) from the North Texas rolling plains.

Abstract.--The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is the most widespread and abundant of big game mammals in Texas. Its current range includes all ecogeographic regions of the state, except the short-grass prairies of the High Plains and the lower flats of the Trans-Pecos. However, in historical times, Texas deer were largely extirpated over much of the former range, including the mesquite savannas of the Rolling Plains in north-central Texas. The species has made a comeback in north-central Texas over the past few decades. This study examines these re-established populations in an effort to determine the validity of anecdotal reports by hunters and taxidermists that Rolling Plains specimens were superior in antler development when compared to other Texas animals. Comparisons were made by analyzing features of the skull and antlers from 234 specimens of comparable ages. Rolling Plains specimens averaged larger for all characters examined in this study, and significantly so for most comparisons. Larger size and superior antler development in Rolling Plains deer is most likely attributed to a combination of favorable foraging conditions and low population densities.


TEXAS J. SCI. 55(4):337-346

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is the most important game species in Texas (Davis & Schmidly 1994), and is responsible for a large majority of the more than $1.5 billion generated annually by the state's deer hunting industry. The economic importance of the species as a trophy-and-meat target has generated numerous studies on factors that positively influence body size and antler development, such as minimal competition in less densely populated areas (Leberg & Smith 1993), superior genetics (Harmel 1981; 1982; Smith et al. 1982; Templeton et al. 1982; Harmel et al. 1989; Scribner et al. 1989), and more nutritious forage (French et al. 1956; Harmel 1981; Ullrey 1982; Harmel et al. 1989; Williams et al. 1994).

The Rolling Plains of north-central Texas have supported large-sized white-tailed deer since the late Pleistocene, and through the Holocene until early historical times (Dalquest & Horner 1984; Dalquest & Schultz 1992; Dalquest & Stangl 1992; Goetze 1989). The local abundance of this species was noted by early explorers of the region during the mid-1800s (Marcy 1856), a few short decades prior to arrival of the railroad and settlement of the area by European farmers and ranchers. These developments coincided with regional extirpation of the white-tailed deer by the end of the nineteenth century, at which time Bailey (1905) remarked on its absence over much of north Texas, which he attributed to a largely unchecked and unlimited harvest of the species for its meat and hide.

The white-tailed deer continued to be a rarity on the Rolling Plains of Texas through the mid-1900s, with only the occasional observation of animals venturing along riparian corridors from the Cross Timbers to the east, or from the Edwards Plateau to the south. The senior author's father, Rex Wells, recalled his father-in-law and long-time Wichita County resident, Lloyd Bell, shooting a white-tailed buck 3 mi N of Iowa Park, in 1963--the first deer either had ever observed in the area in decades. The junior author's first and only local glimpse of a Rolling Plains deer during the 1960s and 1970s was in dense cover along the Red River boundary between Texas and Oklahoma, near Burkburnett, Texas, in 1969.

As recently as 1980 (Gore 1982), the white-tailed deer was known to exist as a marginal resident in the Rolling Plains only along a few densely vegetated river drainages (Figure 1), in a region dominated by monoculture (predominantly wheat) and by rangelands of bunch and short grasses with mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) or cedars (Juniperus sp.). It seems likely that small, isolated populations might have escaped Gore's (1982) notice, having persisted on some of the more extensive private landholdings in the region where access and harvesting would be strictly regulated (e.g., Waggoner and Burnett ranches of Wilbarger and adjoining counties). However, recovery of the white-tailed deer in the Rolling Plains has occurred over the past two decades by immigration into the area from the neighboring Edwards Plateau and intermixed prairies and oak woodlands of the Cross Timbers, supplemented to some extent by occasional introductions by landowners and dispersal from any resident populations. Although not abundant, the species is presently common throughout much of the Texas Rolling Plains. Factors responsible for triggering this recovery remain speculative, but conservation measures, and perhaps the screwworm eradication program, have probably played important roles in facilitating this recovery.

Annual population density estimates of the white-tailed deer in Texas, compiled by state wildlife biologists for multi-county reporting units that do not precisely coincide with regional subdivisions of this study (Texas Parks & Wildlife 2003), range from as few as five deer per 403 ha (1,000 acres) in parts of the Rolling Plains to more than 150 deer in some comparable areas of the Edwards Plateau. Respective census figures of deer per 403 ha for the time during which many of our meat processing and taxidermy specimens were taken (2000-2001), were 24 deer for reporting unit 40 (includes Wichita and Archer counties) and 36 deer for reporting unit 21 (includes Jack and Young counties). With the exception of a decline in the late 1990s, populations from across the state have steadily increased since 1980, with the species in north-central Texas becoming progressively less common to the north and west.


Anecdotal observations by hunters and taxidermists from north-central Texas have suggested that locally harvested specimens of the white-tailed deer compare favorably in size and antler quality to those taken elsewhere in Texas. This study attempts to lend validity to these claims, by quantifying aspects of antler quality and skull size of deer from the Texas Rolling Plains with comparable-aged specimens from four other ecogeographic regions of the state.


Antler characteristics and cranial measurements were obtained from 234 antlered male white-tailed deer representing 36 counties and five ecogeographic regions (as mapped by Davis & Schmidly 1994): Cross Timbers, Edwards Plateau, Post Oak Savannah, Rolling Plains, and the South Texas Plains. Specimens comprising the basis of this study were from the Midwestern State University (MWSU) Collection of Recent Mammals, supplemented with examination of hunter-harvested animals deposited at meat processing plants and taxidermist shops in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Material examined.--Following is a listing of Texas collection localities for 234 male specimens of Odocoileus virginianus. Catalog numbers are provided for specimens deposited in the Midwestern State University (MWSU) Collection of Recent Mammals. The majority of specimens (n = 191) listed as "no specified locality" within each county are those taken by hunters during the 2000/2001 hunting season, and deposited at meat processing plants and taxidermy shops in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Anderson Co.: 10 mi. E of Corsicana, 1. Archer Co.: 7 mi S of Archer City, 1 (MWSU 1323); no specific locality, 18. Baylor Co.: no specific locality, 2. Brooks Co.: no specific locality, 1. Brown Co.: 15 mi N of Brownwood, 2 (MWSU 16850 and 11043); 8 mi S of Brownwood, 1 (MWSU 1321). Childress Co.: no specific locality, 1. Clay Co.: 10 mi W of Bellevue, 1 (MWSU 17335); no specific locality, 21. Collingsworth Co.: no specific locality, 2. Cottle Co.: no specific locality, 5. Foard Co.: 5 mi SW of Quanah, 1; 8 mi SSW of Quanah, 1; 16 mi SE of Quanah, 1; no specific locality, 9. Hardeman Co.: no specific locality, 2. Irion Co.: no specific locality, 3. Jack Co.: 5 mi S of Post Oak, 1 (MWSU 11045); 6 mi N of Jacksboro, 1 (MWSU 18391); 15 mi N of Jacksboro, 1; no specific locality, 14. Kendall Co.: no specific locality, 21. Kimble Co.: 7 mi E of Junction, 1 (MWSU 1689); 12 mi W of Junction, 1 (MWSU 1690). King Co.: no specific locality, 1. Knox Co.: 6 mi N of Goree, 1 (MWSU 20247); no specific locality, 3. Lamar Co.: Nation Ranch, 1 (MWSU 12556). Llano Co.: 5 mi E of Llano, 1. Mason Co.: James Ranch, 5 (MWSU 1308, 1309, 1310, 1315, and 1318); no specific locality, 12. Maverick Co.: no specific locality, 1. McCullough Co.: no specific locality, 5. Montague Co.: no specific locality, 2. Palo Pinto Co.: Lane Ranch, 1 (MWSU 1312); 2 mi S of Wizard Wells, 2 (MWSU 9821 and 9822); no specific locality, 2. Red River Co.: 10 mi NE of Detroit, 3 (MWSU 1313, 1316, and 1322); no specific locality, 1. Runnels Co.: no specific locality, 1. Schleicher Co.: no specific locality, 1. Stephens Co.: 3 mi SE of Caddo, 1 (MWSU 1317); 4 mi SW of Caddo, 2 (MWSU 1320 and 1325); no specific locality, 3. Sutton Co.: no specific locality, 1. Taylor Co.: no specific locality, 1. Terrell Co.: 29 mi NNE of Dryden, 1 (MWSU 11044). Throckmorton Co.: no specific locality, 10. Webb Co.: no specific locality, 2. Wichita Co.: 2 mi W of Iowa Park, 1; 3mi W of Iowa Park, 1; 3 mi SE of Iowa Park, 1; 8 mi WSW of Wichita Falls, 1; no specific locality, 24. Wilbarger Co.: 10 mi W of Vernon, 1; Pease River, 1; no specific locality, 14. Young Co.: 8.5 mi SE of Graham, 1 (MWSU 16859); 12 mi SW of Graham, 2 (MWSU 1314 and 1319); no specific locality, 8.

All specimens were assigned relative ages, based on the degree of dental wear (Severinghaus 1949). Cranial robustness as an indirect measure of body size was determined by measurements (in mm) of the maximum skull length (excluding the premaxillary). The gross Boone & Crockett score, as a composite measure of trophy quality of deer antlers, was calculated following the methodology of Nesbitt & Wright (1985). All statistical analyses were performed with the Number Cruncher Statistical System, NCSS 97 (Hintze 1997).

Inadequate sample sizes existed for specimens originating in the Post Oak Savannah and South Texas Plains, and of individuals representing age classes 6.5 and 7.5, necessitating removal of these specimens from further consideration. The resulting analyses permitted comparisons of deer of 1.5-5.5 years-of-age from the Edwards Plateau (n = 49), Cross Timbers (n = 67), and Rolling Plains (n = 96). Sample sizes from adjoining counties representing an interface between contiguous ecogeographic regions of the Cross Timbers (Jack, Stephens and Young counties, n = 34) and the Rolling Plains (Archer and Wichita counties, n = 47) permitted an examination of the extent of any clinal variation in antler development and skull size of respective populations of Odocoileus virginianus. The comparatively large sample size from this latter comparison also permitted evaluation of any possible bias between animals examined at meat processing plants with those at taxidermy shops for age classes 2.5 and 3.5.


Both cranial dimensions and Boone and Crockett (B&C) scores of Rolling Plains deer averaged larger than comparable-aged series of Odocoileus virginianus (age classes 1.5-7.5 years) from each of the South Texas Plains, Post Oak Savannah, Edwards Plateau and Cross Timbers regions of Texas. Samples for three regions (Rolling Plains, Cross Timbers, Edwards Plateau) and five age classes (1.5-5.5 years) were sufficient to permit statistical comparisons, and to clearly illustrate the significantly lesser stature of the Edwards Plateau herd for both antler quality (Table 1) and skull length (Table 2), and to simultaneously demonstrate the superior development of these features among specimens originating from the Rolling Plains. Differences in Boone and Crockett scores appear to become even more pronounced with age (Tables 1, 3).

A more precise examination of the Rolling Plains/Cross Timbers interface was (Table 3) demonstrates a rather abrupt shift in size and antler development. Geographic criteria for selection of this interface was based on contiguous counties whose current deer populations are within cruising distance of one another, and which permitted a more direct comparison of post-1980 animals (Archer and Wichita counties of the Rolling Plains) with populations from an area of unbroken or continuous occupation (Jack, Stephens and Young counties of the Cross Timbers).

Taxidermy specimens tend to be heavier-antlered than those examined at meat processing plants, although diminished sample sizes with this additional comparison permitted examination of only two age classes. Boone & Crockett scores for Rolling Plains specimens examined at meat processing plants also averaged larger than those from adjoining counties of the Cross Timbers (age class 2.5: 93.5, n = 12, vs. 72.8, n = 4; age class 3.5: 103.8, n = 8, vs. 85.8, n = 9). Similarly, scores of Rolling Plains taxidermy specimens averaged greater than those of the Cross Timbers (age class 3.5: 145.1, n = 4, vs. 117.0, n = 3).


There is a paucity of available literature concerning Odocoileus virginianus from the Rolling Plains, and much remains to be learned of local foraging preferences, genetic composition and population densities. Nevertheless, a regional association of comparatively large deer with superior antler development is indicated. Genetics probably plays a minor role, given the dispersal capabilities of this large mammal and the resulting likelihood of unrestricted gene flow among and between populations of this five-county region comprising the Rolling Plains/Cross Timbers interface. Rather, the factors of superior nutrition and lower population density are implicated in a way favorable for larger, more heavily antlered deer.

Much of the Cross Timbers habitat within the counties of Jack, Stephens and Young is rugged and timbered terrain restricts the extent of agricultural development, while providing extensive cover and the seasonally available oak mast crop for the white-tailed deer. While sightings of this animal are a locally frequent occurrence, it seems plausible that the comparatively dense cover and rugged terrain may even contribute to underestimates of this region's deer herd. Alternatively, the more level and open country of the Rolling Plains counties of Archer and Wichita are dominated by extensive mesquite pasturelands and monoculture (mostly wheat) that afford favorable foraging conditions. Suitable habitat appears to be an important limiting factor for deer numbers. Leafed out mesquite permits sufficient extensive opportunities for shelter during the growing season, but adequate cover during winter months is mostly restricted to riparian habitat and the scattered, denser stands of brush.

The Rolling Plains deer herd has received little outside attention, due largely to the comparative recent (post-1980) resurgence of the species locally, and the long, historical attraction by Texas hunters to denser numbers of central and eastern parts of the state. Present hunting forecasts for Texas (Hodge 2003) continue to emphasize central, south and eastern regions, while noting that current habitat management practices by private landowners are enhancing conditions for O. virginianus across most of the state.

Present land use practices and current hunting pressures across the Rolling Plains seem conducive to maintaining a deer herd characterized by large size and superior antler development. The authors perceive that the primary threat to herd quality would be increased hunting pressures resulting from increased awareness of the region as a source for trophy animals. Collaboration between landowners and wildlife professionals, in monitoring population sizes and establishing responsive harvesting quotas, should ensure superior, albeit limited, trophy hunting opportunities well into the foreseeable future.
Table 1. Summary of descriptive statistics for gross Boone and Crockett
score for 212 adult male specimens of Odocoileus virginianus from three
ecogeographic regions of Texas. Statistics include sample size (n),
mean, standard deviation (SD), range (minimum-maximum), confidence
interval (CI), and coefficient of variation (CV). Results of Duncan's
Multiple Means tests are significant at P [less than or equal to] 0.05.

 Region n Mean [+ or -] SD Range 95% CI

 Age = 1.5 years **

Edwards Plateau 7 33.1 [+ or -] 12.0 22.0- 57.0 24.2- 42.0
Cross Timbers 15 45.3 [+ or -] 12.8 28.4- 67.6 38.3- 51.8
Rolling Plains 18 54.4 [+ or -] 15.7 25.3- 84.5 47.2- 61.1

 Age = 2.5 years ***

Edwards Plateau 6 62.9 [+ or -] 12.6 46.4- 76.5 52.8- 73.0
Cross Timbers 14 80.2 [+ or -] 19.2 44.9-126.6 70.1- 90.3
Rolling Plains 19 100.8 [+ or -] 16.0 78.9-136.3 93.6-108.0

 Age = 3.5 years **

Edwards Plateau 11 80.4 [+ or -] 29.9 31.0-115.9 62.7- 98.1
Cross Timbers 29 100.4 [+ or -] 29.2 69.9-168.5 89.8-111.0
Rolling Plains 25 118.1 [+ or -] 26.1 67.1-171.1 107.9-128.3

 Age = 4.5 years ***

Edwards Plateau 17 101.8 [+ or -] 12.5 81.5-122.9 95.9-107.7
Cross Timbers 7 127.5 [+ or -] 27.9 94.3-177.1 106.8-148.2
Rolling Plains 24 140.3 [+ or -] 19.9 103.4-170.8 132.3-148.3

 Age = 5.5 years *

Edwards Plateau 8 114.2 [+ or -] 15.2 96.4-137.1 103.7-124.7
Cross Timbers 2 116.9 [+ or -] 40.8 88.0-145.8 59.9-173.4
Rolling Plains 10 143.4 [+ or -] 18.6 117.4-168.1 128.9-154.9

Ecogeographic CV Duncan's
Region Test

Edwards Plateau 36.3 A
Cross Timbers 28.3 B
Rolling Plains 28.9 B

Edwards Plateau 20.0 A
Cross Timbers 23.9 B
Rolling Plains 15.9 C

Edwards Plateau 37.2 A
Cross Timbers 29.1 B
Rolling Plains 22.1 B

Edwards Plateau 12.2 A
Cross Timbers 21.9 B
Rolling Plains 14.2 B

Edwards Plateau 13.3 A
Cross Timbers 34.9 A
Rolling Plains 13.0 B

One-way ANOVA: * = 0.05 > P > 0.01; ** = 0.01 > P > 0.001; *** = P <

Table 2. Summary of descriptive statistics for maximum length (in mm) of
skull for 171 adult male specimens of Odocoileus virginianus from three
ecogeographic regions of Texas. Statistics include sample size (n),
mean, standard deviation (SD), range (minimum-maximum), confidence
interval (CI), and coefficient of variation (CV). Results of Duncan's
Multiple Means tests are significant at P < 0.05.

 Region n Mean [+ or -] SD Range 95% CI

 Age = 1.5 years ***

Edwards Plateau 7 190.0 [+ or -] 12.9 167-208 178.5-202.5
Cross Timbers 15 213.5 [+ or -] 8.4 199-228 208.9-218.1
Rolling Plains 18 220.7 [+ or -] 12.8 200-248 214.4-227.0

 Age = 2.5 years ***

Edwards Plateau 6 202.0 [+ or -] 8.1 193-215 193.9-210.1
Cross Timbers 13 215.2 [+ or -] 7.6 203-228 210.6-219.8
Rolling Plains 17 235.4 [+ or -] 9.4 222-250 230.6-240.2

 Age = 3.5 years ***

Edwards Plateau 11 210.6 [+ or -] 6.4 200-221 206.4-214.9
Cross Timbers 24 220.3 [+ or -] 9.0 200-241 216.5-224.1
Rolling Plains 17 236.0 [+ or -] 10.7 218-252 230.5-241.5

 Age = 4.5 years ***

Edwards Plateau 17 215.7 [+ or -] 10.0 200-235 210.6-220.8
Cross Timbers 4 226.5 [+ or -] 7.0 220-233 216.8-236.2
Rolling Plains 9 232.8 [+ or -] 10.0 221-248 225.3-240.3

 Age = 5.5 years ***

Edwards Plateau 8 215.6 [+ or -] 10.8 198-229 206.8-224.4
Cross Timbers 1 229.0 - -
Rolling Plains 4 242.5 [+ or -] 13.7 230-262 223.5-261.5

Ecogeographic CV Duncan's
 Region Test

Edwards Plateau 6.8 A
Cross Timbers 3.9 B
Rolling Plains 5.8 B

Edwards Plateau 4.0 A
Cross Timbers 3.5 B
Rolling Plains 4.0 C

Edwards Plateau 3.0 A
Cross Timbers 4.1 B
Rolling Plains 4.5 C

Edwards Plateau 4.6 A
Cross Timbers 3.1 B
Rolling Plains 4.3 B

Edwards Plateau 5.0 A
Cross Timbers - -
Rolling Plains 5.6 B

One-way ANOVA: * = 0.05 > P > 0.01; ** = 0.01 > P > 0.001; *** = P <

Table 3. Summary of descriptive statistics for three age classes
(1.5-3.5 years) of male Odocoileus virginianus from the north Texas
interface of the Rolling Plains and Cross Timbers ecogeographic
regions. Rolling Plains specimens are from Archer and Wichita counties,
and Cross Timbers specimens are from Jack, Stephens and Young counties.
Statistics include sample size (n), mean, standard deviation(SD),range
(minimum-maximum), confidence interval (CI), and coefficient (CV).

 Region n Mean [+ or -] SD Range

 Age = 1.5 years

 Boone and Crockett scores: (N.S.)

Cross Timbers 8 43.1 [+ or -] 15.0 28.4-67.6
Rolling Plains 11 56.5 [+ or -] 14.7 32.8-84.5

 Skull length: **

Cross Timbers 8 210.4 [+ or -] 8.2 199-226
Rolling Plains 11 223.4 [+ or -] 9.8 208-236

 Age = 2.5 years

 Boone and Crockett scores: *

Cross Timbers 8 76.0 [+ or -] 23.9 44.9-126.6
Rolling Plains 13 95.5 + 12.2 78.9-119.3

 Skull length: ***

Cross Timbers 7 214.9 [+ or -] 3.5 212-221
Rolling Plains 13 236.9 [+ or -] 9.6 222-250

 Age = 3.5 years

 Boone and Crockett scores: ***

Cross Timbers 14 91.2 [+ or -] 28.3 69.9-136.6
Rolling Plains 12 117.6 [+ or -] 23.8 79.8-163.9

 Skull length: ***

Cross Timbers 12 217.8 [+ or -] 10.3 200-230
Rolling Plains 8 239.5 [+ or -] 9.4 224-252

Ecogeographic Region 95% CI CV

 Boone and Crockett scores: (N.S.)

Cross Timbers 32.7-53.5 34.8
Rolling Plains 47.8-65.2 26.0

 Skull length: **

Cross Timbers 204.7-216.1 3.9
Rolling Plains 217.6-229.2 4.4

 Boone and Crockett scores: *

Cross Timbers 59.5- 92.6 31.4
Rolling Plains 88.9-102.1 12.8

 Skull length: ***

Cross Timbers 212.3-217.5 1.6
Rolling Plains 231.7-242.1 4.1

 Boone and Crockett scores: ***

Cross Timbers 76.4-106.0 31.0
Rolling Plains 104.1-131.1 20.2

 Skull length: ***

Cross Timbers 212.0-223.6 4.7
Rolling Plains 233.0-246.0 3.9

One-way ANOVA: * = 0.05 > P > 0.01; ** = 0.01 > P > 0.001; *** = P <


Jim Goetze and an anonymous reviewer offered comments on an earlier draft that greatly improved the final product.

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Kyle W. Wells and Frederick B. Stangl, Jr.

Department of Biology, Midwestern State University

Wichita Falls, Texas 76308
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Author:Wells, Kyle W.; Stangl, Frederick B. Jr.
Publication:The Texas Journal of Science
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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