An odd series of events led to Seneca, New York playing host to the world's largest herd of white deer. There's actually an evolutionary reason why one particular set of genes for these unusual deer came to be favored in Seneca.

These are not albino deer. In fact, they have the capability to produce melanin, which is why their eyes are dark brown. In most deer, this melanin is also produced in their hair follicles, coloring them a slightly dun brown except for a white patch on their tails. And this white patch is why they're called white-tailed deer. The all-white variety of these deer express a recessive gene that prevents melanin from showing up anywhere in their coats, but doesn't disrupt the melanin in the rest of their bodies.

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As you can see from pictures, this is not a great trait to have in the wild ‚ÄĒ the deer don't exactly blend into their environments. But then again, this population hasn't really been "in the wild" for quite some time. In 1941, an army munitions depot went up in Seneca, New York. The fence around the depot enclosed over ten thousand of acres of woodland, and one herd of deer. Ten years later, soldiers spotted a pair of white fawns roaming the woods. The depot commander was so taken with him that he gave special orders to his men. No one was to shoot any white deer. With the fence keeping predators out, and humans concentrating their hunting efforts on regular deer, the white deer population flourished.

By the time the army depot closed down in the 1990s, there were about 300 deer on the grounds, and a population of dedicated locals that wanted to see the white deer population preserved. This past decade has seen ongoing clashes between developers and conservation groups. A maximum security prison went up on the land, and a records storage facility, but proposals for an ethanol plant and a development scheme have been shot down. Most of the 10,000 acres remain both undeveloped and enclosed ‚ÄĒ although the fence has become more and more ragged over the years. Meanwhile, conservation societies have been pushing for ecotourism and park status for the land.

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Incidentally, the Seneca deer, being an enclosed population, are probably one of the most-studied herds in the world, and not because of their odd coloring. The bulk of studies on white-tailed deer, their reproduction, their response to immunization, and how they rear their young have either been conducted or make reference to studies conducted at the Seneca depot.

Images: Brian Adler

[Via Seneca White Deer, The New York Times, Europe Pubmed Central.]

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