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Celebrate Halloween and learn about ‘fanged-deer’

They may sound like urban legends, but these Critically Endangered animals are real and they need our help

By Devin Murphy on October 10th, 2021   duration

A Sliver-backed Chevrotain captured by a camera trap in Vietnam's Annamites Mountains. (Photo by SIE / Re:wild / Leibniz-IZW / NCNP)
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Southeast Asia is home to many deer species that sound as if they were conjured from a Halloween story. Believe it or not--they have fangs! The deer are herbivores, so the “fangs” are not true fangs, like the ones Dracula uses in stories to drink the blood of his victims. Instead, the fangs are actually large canines, used for defense and to protect their territory. A fanged deer . . .how’s that for a Halloween scare?

There are three groups of fanged deer that Re:wild and its partners study in Southeast Asia: Muntjacs, Chevrotain and Musk Deer. Most of their work is in the Annamite Mountains that straddle the border of Vietnam and Laos.  

“Annamite endemics are species that you can only find in the Annamites mountain range,” says An Nguyen, a research associate with Re:wild, and Ph.D. student at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW). “We know very little about many of these species, except the fact that several of them are now threatened as a result of high levels of poaching, largely done by the setting of indiscriminate wire snares.” 

Large-antlered Muntjac (© Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research / WWF-Vietnam / USAID / Song Thanh Nature Reserve)
Large-antlered Muntjac (© Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research / WWF-Vietnam / USAID / Song Thanh Nature Reserve)

Searching for elusive vampire deer

Even after years of study, very little is known about the rare fanged-deer of the Annamites. Scientists mostly depend on camera traps to catch glimpses of them in the dense forests of the region. With camera trap photos, they are able to gather photos that can help inform conservation. For example, in 2018, scientists obtained the first photos of the rare Large-antlered Muntjac in Quang Nam province, Vietnam. 

“​​In the past few years, scientists have increased camera-trapping efforts in the Annamites, and this has provided valuable information on these species,” says Andrew Tilker, Re:wild’s Asian species officer, who has been studying these animals for almost a decade. “There have been some neat findings, including with extensive camera trappings, we might get a handful of photos of Muntjac.” 

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is another detective tool conservationists use to determine where the Muntjacs live. Scientists have found that it’s possible to test the blood in Annamites leeches to see what the leeches have fed on. It’s a new way scientists can collect traces of deer DNA--spooky! 

Muntjacs of the Annamites

There are several species of Muntjacs in the Annamites Mountains, including the Annamite Dark Muntjac and the Large-Antlered Muntjac. 

“The Dark Muntjac group are especially interesting, since there could be a couple species roaming the Annamites--we are still trying to unravel their taxonomy,” says Thành Van Nguyen, an associate with Re:wild, and also a Ph.D. student at the Leibniz-IZW and researcher with the Central Institute for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies (CRES). “The Dark Muntjac is also interesting because both the males and females have enlarged canines.” 

The Large-Antlered Muntjac is Critically Endangered, largely due to snaring, which is a threat to nearly all mammal species in the Annamites. There are only a handful of places in the Annamites where the Large-Antlered Muntjac has been confirmed to exist in recent years.

“It’s quite rare,” says Thanh Nguyen. “In Vietnam, the species is likely hanging on in only a few places. It’s rapidly approaching extinction.”

“​​Time is running out to save the Large-antlered Muntjac, which is the rarest of the Muntjac in the Annamites,” says Tilker. “It is important to reduce snaring in key areas, but the highest priority is to establish a conservation breeding program. With a healthy breeding population, we can save the species from extinction, and hopefully use those populations to re-wild parts of the Annamites where Large-antlered Muntjac has been lost.”

Two Silver-backed Chevrotain captured by a camera trap in the Annamites Mountains (Photo by SIE / Re:wild / Leibniz-IZW / NCNP)
Two Silver-backed Chevrotain captured by a camera trap in the Annamites Mountains (Photo by SIE / Re:wild / Leibniz-IZW / NCNP)

Chevrotain 

The Silver-backed Chevrotain has a ghostly reputation because it went missing to scientists for almost three decades. As part of the Search for Lost Species, Re:wild, Southern Institute of Ecology and Leibniz-IZW rediscovered the chevrotain in 2019, haunting--ok more like stealthily tiptoeing around--the Annamites. Silver-backed Chevrotains are also called ‘mouse deer’ because of their extremely petite stature, but they are not actually deer. And even though Silver-backed Chevrotains are barely bigger than rabbits, the males still have large canines. 

When the species was rediscovered, scientists knew very little about it. It had only ever been documented a handful of times and scientists haven’t directly seen a live animal in the wild. However, since it was initially rediscovered in 2019, camera traps have helped find two more populations in the Annamites, giving scientists hope for the Chevrotain’s future. 

A camera trap in Vietnam's kart mountains captured this photo of a Forest Musk Deer in February 2021. (Photo courtesy of Viet Nam National University of Forestry, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, and Re:wild)
A camera trap in Vietnam's kart mountains captured this photo of a Forest Musk Deer in February 2021. (Photo courtesy of Viet Nam National University of Forestry, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, and Re:wild)

Musk Deer 

Musk Deer are a unique type of “fanged deer” found in the mountains of South and Southeast Asia. In 2021, scientists unexpectedly found a population of Musk Deer in the limestone mountains of northern Vietnam. After receiving a tip with a photo of a musk deer, a team with the Wildlife Department of Vietnam National University of Forestry set out camera traps--kind of like a scientific version of trick or treating. They were rewarded with two photos of Musk Deer. They were the first evidence in 20 years that Musk Deer still live in Vietnam--haunting the remote mountains of the north.

Musk Deer have prominent canines that extend down from their jawlines. The teeth give  them the rare and unusual opportunity to look simultaneously cuddly with their large ears and eyes, but also a little menacing. The species also gets its name from the glands the males use to mark their territories with a substance that leaves a musky smell. 

The frightening truth

The Large-Antlered Muntjac, the Silver-backed Chevrotain and the Musk Deer may not actually be very scary or intimidating, but the threat they all face from hunting with snares is very real. Conservationists are working to protect the areas where they still live, like the Annamites, and do anything they can to help them recover and thrive.

About the author

Devin Murphy

Devin Murphy is Re:wilds’s senior communications specialist and helps Re:wild and its partners tell stories about the work they do to protect wildlife and wildlands around the planet. Her favorite stories about conservation include fascinating and little-known species and the dedicated humans protecting them.

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