My “Dork” Deer

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1909
When an animal I harvest has a special feature it makes sense to illustrate it. The photo shows a textbook example of a lower jaw deformity. The inset shows how radically short the lower jaw is, yet the deer is seemed healthy. Photo by Steve Sorensen
When an animal I harvest has a special feature it makes sense to illustrate it. The photo shows a textbook example of a lower jaw deformity. The inset shows how radically short the lower jaw is, yet the deer is seemed healthy. Photo by Steve Sorensen

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

I shot a “dork” deer. No, I’m not engaging in junior high name calling. I’m not trying to be funny, or saying the deer was stupid, or ugly, or anything of the sort. I shot a deer with a birth defect – an abnormally short lower jaw. The technical term is brachygnathy inferior, and it’s a deer with a major overbite.

I don’t know who first called a deer like this a “dork” deer. Other names for this deformity are “parrot jaw” and “bird face.”

Deer that have this defect often have other defects, especially piebaldism and shorter legs, detrimental genetic traits which make the deer less effective at avoiding predators. However, I observed no other abnormality in this deer. (And he certainly tasted normal.)

This congenital deformity also occurs in other species including sheep, cattle, dogs and even the rhinoceros. Often, a veterinarian will recommend putting a farm animal down if it has this condition, but many people take sympathy for pets and keep them.

The deer was probably 3½ years old with normal antlers – a typical 8-point rack, 17 inches wide. His body was healthy, but relatively small at under 120 pounds field-dressed. His stomach was full of acorns. Though he had no fat on him, that’s to be expected because the harvest was made after the rut when bucks typically deplete their fat stores.

I noticed the deformity when I was preparing to take photos, and first thought the deer had an injury. I examined it closely but I could neither see nor feel anything such as a broken jaw, tumors, a wound or other damage. The teeth are likely small and probably will not show normal wear, but clearly the deer was able to eat well enough not only to survive the condition, but to be a healthy, active adult buck. The deer also had a swollen, infected nose, probably unrelated to the jaw deformity.

While not much can be known about this deer’s individual habits, his abnormality had to give him some unique challenges. As a fawn, was his lower jaw closer in size to his upper jaw? Would he have nursed from the side of his mouth? Could he nurse adequately? If not, and if he was a twin, he may have fed less than his sibling (assuming his sibling had normal jaw development).

When he transitioned to an adult diet, was he able to eat as quickly as his companions and then seek cover with them in order to ruminate in a safe setting? If not, he would likely have been more vulnerable whether he remained alone in the feeding area, or he left with them but before getting an adequate food intake. It seems reasonable to conclude that his small body size was due to inefficient feeding from an early age, but that doesn’t explain the normal antler size.

As an adult, was this deer able to feed naturally on grasses and clover? Was he able to bite off tender browse with his lower incisors? Was his molar configuration typical? Did his teeth wear normally? And was larger, woodier browse a challenge for his molars?

I’m having his skull and his diminutive jawbones cleaned by dermastid beetles, and I’m contacting a couple of deer biologists and a veterinarian in hopes of being able to learn more about this apparently healthy but abnormal buck.

Even if all my questions don’t have answers, one thing is certain. A birth defect which would be a significant handicap to a human was apparently little more than a minor inconvenience to him. Mother Nature can be crueler than a pack of name-calling junior high kids, but this deer apparently got along very well, and shows how tough a whitetail deer can be.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, writing about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. Contact him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com, and read more of his thoughts about hunting at www.jamestowngazette.com.

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Steve Sorensen of Russell, PA is an award-winning writer whose column, The Everyday Hunter®, offers hunting tips, strategies, insights and occasional humor. His byline has appeared in the nation's top hunting magazines and he is a field contributor to "Deer and Deer Hunting" magazine. Steve is also in demand as an event speaker, presenting programs on do-it-yourself Alaska moose hunting, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and eastern coyotes, with new programs coming. E-mail him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com to invite him to speak at your next sportsman's dinner (or to tell him where your best hunting spot is).