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Muntjacs, also known as Barking deer and Mastreani deer, are one of the smallest deer, with unique features like small antlers and canine tusks. The name Muntjac originates from the Sudanese “mencek”, which means small deer. Muntjacs are the oldest deer, thought to have begun appearing 15–35 million years ago, with remains found in Miocene deposits in France, Germany and Poland. Muntjacs are of great interest in evolutionary studies because of their dramatic chromosome variations, and the recent discovery of several new species. The common Indian Muntjac (M. muntjak) is the mammal with the lowest recorded chromosome (a carrier of genetic information) number: The male has a diploid number of 7, the female only 6 chromosomes. Reeves’s Muntjac (M. reevesi), in comparison, has a diploid number of 46 chromosomes.
There is some debate over just how many known species of Muntjac there are, with a few only recently discovered and several that are scarcely known with little documentation available. I studied all available information, cross-referenced and could not be certain about the number. There are conflicting scientific names for some species that originate from the same regions and it appears scientists in many instances are also in a dilemma. Therefore I am just going to list the appropriate available information.
The present-day species are native to Southern Asia and can be found in India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the Indonesian islands, Taiwan and Southern China (where a study completed in 1987 showed the population at 140,000 -150,000). They are also found in the lower Himalayas (Terai regions of Nepal and Bhutan) and in some areas of Japan (the Boso Peninsula and Ōshima Island). They have been introduced to England very successfully. It has been documented they were shipped in 1946 to NSW, Australia and released in the Royal National Park (RNP), however the release in the RNP could not be substantiated, and Muntjac were also documented as arriving at Parramatta Park around this period. This may be the cause of the reference mix up (Aaron R. Grant 2016). Reeves Muntjac, are held in captivity on several Texas Game Ranches however they have not yet breed into substantial numbers. Muntjac, have also been introduced to the Anderman Islands (Bay of Bengal between Sri Lanka & Thailand), and on Lombok (Indonesia).
Inhabiting tropical regions, these deer have no seasonal rut, and mating can take place at any time of year. Populations introduced to temperate climates retain this behavior.
Nicknamed the ‘barking deer’, Muntjac will cry out when they sense a nearby threat, releasing a low, barking ‘dog-like’ call in an effort to scare off any would-be predators. Muntjacs are small deer, with sizes of the various species ranging between 45 to 70cm. The giant Muntjac is the largest of all muntjacs and an adult can weigh up to 60 Kg. However, on average, a muntjac deer weights anywhere between 10 to 20 kg. These deer are highly alert; when put into a stressful situation or if a predator is sensed, muntjacs begin making a bark-like sound. Barking was originally thought of as a means of communication between the deer during mating season, as well as an alert. However, in more recent studies, it has been identified as a mechanism used solely in alarming situations meant to cause a predator to realize that it has been detected and move elsewhere or to reveal itself. The barking mechanism is used more frequently when visibility is reduced and can last for over an hour throughout a single incident.
It is quite easy to distinguish between males, females, adults and young ones of the genus Muntiacus. Male muntjac deer are larger and muscular than the female muntjacs. They have small sometimes-curving antlers that can grow up to 10 to 15 centimeters in size. The muntjac antlers re-grow after they are shed yearly during May and June. The new antlers are grown out completely between August and September. Females don’t have antlers; instead, they have a patch of fur on top of the bony knobs on their head.
The canines are longer and clearly visible in males, while, in females, the canines are small and mostly covered by their upper lip. The young muntjacs grow quickly and can reach the size of an adult in just one year. Like all deer species, muntjacs have eyes placed on the sides of its skull, giving them a wide range of vision and ease to spot predators. It also relies on its sense of smell to detect predators or to find females. Along with all the basic senses, the deer also uses a special sixth sense, known as the vomeronasal organ. It is located in the upper side of the deer’s mouth. This organ is used to detect chemical scents left by other animals. The muntjac especially uses this organ to find females in oestrus. The muntjac deer buck lifts up its upper lip and allows air into its mouth, in order to sense chemical scents left by female muntjacs (this is called fleming).
Muntjac deer prefer deciduous forests, scrublands and woodlands. They prefer to live in a habitat with lush and dense undercover vegetation. Interestingly, these deer are omnivorous, feeding on herbs, fruit, birds’ eggs, small animals, sprouts, seeds, and grasses. A deer being omnivorous may raise some eyebrows in the hunting community however a good friend of mine at the Great Lake, Tasmania told me several years ago that he had observed the local Fallow deer population eating left over trout heads and leftover carcasses, discarded by himself after filleting. This I later confirmed with my own eyes! Muntjac will live at quite high elevations and I observed them very briefly at first light in Sri Lanka where they feed in tea plantations margins at 5,000 feet elevation. When aware of my presence they instantly departed the plantation and plunged into nearby bordering, above-head-high, dense, grass thickets. I also observed a lone buck in faint light on the approach to elevated Horton Plains in Sri Lanka. This one was feeding on an improved green pasture paddock at approximately 6,000 feet. It was making its way directly to tall forest with dense understory. They prefer woodlands that are close to water sources. Some species of muntjacs are capable of flourishing even under unfavorable conditions, especially due to their adaptations to handle or survive their habitat.
Muntjacs have learnt to survive many of the toughest predators. In its range in Asia, the muntjac shares its ground with top predators like tigers, leopards (snow leopard, clouded leopard), wolves, jackals, crocodiles and large pythons. These apex predators have sharp senses and unmatched strength, enabling them to easily hunt small deer like the muntjacs. However, the muntjacs’ high level of alertness, alarm warning-systems, agility and small size aids them with concealment and enables them to rapidly evade predators.
The muntjac deer doesn’t follow any specific breeding season. They can breed during any period throughout the year; females give birth to a single fawn, occasionally twins. Females reach sexual maturity earlier than the males, at an age of 7 to 9 months, while males can become sexually mature between 11 to 12 months after birth. Throughout the year, males search for females in their territory and try to mate with them. The gestation period lasts for up to 230 days or approximately 7-8 months. The fawn is small and most subspecies have visible spots on its coat. Females stop lactation, once the fawn is 7-8 weeks old. Fawns have a good survival ratio, helping the species to flourish in numbers. Under favorable conditions, a muntjac deer can live for up to 15-20 years. The female is capable of breeding again within a few days after giving birth, which means, a doe can give birth to a new fawn every 7 months.
Their nature of interaction with the habitat is yet not fully understood. Wild muntjacs are spotted active both day and night. However, most individuals tend to show a crepuscular behavior. Muntjac deer are solitary grazers that occasionally form small herds of 4-5 individuals. They patrol their territory, in search for food and mates. Females are often seen with a fawn, and their territory overlaps with several other territories of surrounding males. Males like to keep separate territories. They usually tolerate other younger muntjacs, but fights can occur when a female is at stake. Male muntjacs fight with their antlers and can cause serious injuries to each other. They also make use of their long, sharp canines, which can tear flesh like a dagger. Muntjac deer are gallant, feisty little creatures and will defend their young fearlessly. They will aggressively attack anything that comes close to the young and it is documented that dogs have been attacked and seriously injured by them. Mick Doellinger recently told me he watched as a muntjac buck, in a Javan zoo, repeatedly and aggressively leapt up the side of an adult Sambar hind and tore multiple gashes in her with his canine teeth.
Reeves’s Muntjac (Muntiucas reevesi) also known as Chinese muntjac is one of the most significant subspecies to hunters. A large feral population of them exists in England where they can be hunted. Reeves’s muntjac was introduced from China to England in 1838, with the wild populations descended from escapees from the Woburn Abbey estate around 1925. They have been assisted apparently by several translocations. Muntjac have expanded very rapidly, and are now present in most English counties and have also expanded their range into Wales, although they are less common in the north-west. The British Deer Society coordinated a survey of wild deer in the UK between 2005 and 2007, and they reported that muntjac deer had noticeably expanded their range since the previous census in 2000. It is anticipated that muntjac may soon become the most numerous species of deer in England and may have also crossed the border into Scotland with a couple of specimens even appearing in Northern Ireland in 2009; they have been spotted in the Republic of Ireland in 2010, almost certainly having reached there with some human assistance. Reeves’ muntjac is small, stocky and russet brown in colour in summer and grey/brown in winter. Bucks have short (10 cm) antlers growing from long pedicles. Antlers are usually unbranched but a very short brow tine is occasionally found in old bucks. They also have visible upper canines (tusks) suggesting that they are a primitive species. Muntjac, have two pairs of large glands on the face. The upper pair is the frontal glands, whilst the lower glands, below the eyes, are called sub-orbitals. Both glands are used to scent-mark territories and boundaries. They have a ginger forehead with pronounced black lines running up the pedicles in bucks, and a dark diamond shape on does. The haunches are higher than the withers (similar to Hog deer) giving a hunched appearance. They have a fairly wide tail, which is held erect when disturbed.
The Indian Muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak), also known as barking deer and red muntjac is the most common and one of the larger species. It is one of the most widespread but least known mammals in Southeast Asia. Indian Muntjac are about the size of an Australian kelpie, with short, curled antlers that are carried on their foreheads by bony ‘pedicles’ – stalk-like structures that extend down the face to form a pair of dark ridges. The females don’t grow antlers – they just have small, bony knobs instead. Muntjac can defend themselves with their antlers, but their tusk-like canine teeth are a more formidable weapon – the males will use these fangs on each other to establish dominance.
The genus Muntiacus has the following recognized species detailed however some of these listed under differing scientific names may be the same species:
• Indian muntjac or common muntjac or red muntjac or kakar, Muntiacus muntjak
• Reeves’s muntjac or Chinese muntjac, M. reevesi
• Hairy-fronted muntjac or black muntjac, M. crinifrons
• Fea’s muntjac, M. feae
• Bornean yellow muntjac, M. atherodes
• Roosevelt’s muntjac, M. rooseveltorum
• Gongshan muntjac, M. gongshanensis
• Giant muntjac, M. vuquangensis
• Truong Son muntjac M. truongsonensis
• Leaf muntjac M. putaoensis
• Sumatran muntjac M. montanus
• Pu Hoat muntjac M. puhoatensis
• M. m. annamensis, Indochina
• M. m. aureus, peninsular India
• M. m. bancanus, Belitung and Bangka islands
• M. m. curvostylis, Thailand
• M. m. grandicornis, Burmese muntjac, Burma
• M. m. malabaricus, South India and Sri Lanka
• M. m. montanus, mountain muntjac, Sumatra
• M. m. muntjak, Javan muntjac, Java and south Sumatra
• M. m. nainggolani, Bali and Lombok Islands
• M. m. nigripes, black-footed or black-legged muntjac, Vietnam and Hainan Island
• M. m. peninsulae, Malaysia
• M. m. pleicharicus, South Borneo
• M. m. robinsoni, Bintan Island and Lingga Islands
• M. m. rubidus, north Borneo
• M. m. vaginalis, Burma to southwest China
The following species are familiar to researchers, but ongoing studies may change their taxonomy in the future. As there are many species and subspecies of muntjacs in Asia, only thorough examination can determine their correct taxonomic status. Following are descriptions of several of the better-known muntjacs, including where they can be found and its conservation status:
• Indian Muntjac/Red/Common (Muntiacus muntjac) The Indian Muntjac is found in Southern Asian regions of India, Nepal and Pakistan. They flourish in numbers in their habitat.
• Black Muntjac (Muntiacus crinifrons) The black muntjac is widely known as the hairy-fronted muntjac and also as the red-headed blue muntjac. The species gets its name due to its dark colour. This species of muntjac deer is considered vulnerable and highly endangered with only a few thousand individuals remaining in the wild. The main threats are habitat loss due to human occupation and hunting. The black muntjac is restricted to eastern China, western Zhejiang, North-eastern Jiangxi and northern Fujian. Even though the population is seriously vulnerable to the threat of extinction, there are no active conservation measures being carried out in its range.
• Bornean Yellow Muntjac (Muntiacus atherodes) The Bornean Yellow Muntjac gets its name due to its yellow-orange fur. It is found on the Bornean Island and in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. They flourish in their range. However, human activity in its habitat is reducing numbers. It could soon be listed as under threat for this reason.
• Gongshan Muntjac (Muntiacus gongshanensis) The Gongshan Muntjac gets its name due to its range of habitat, the Gongshan Mountains. It is found in north-western Yunnan, Tibet and northern Myanmar. It was long believed that the hairy muntjac found in the north-eastern India was the black muntjac. However, extensive genetic studies, later on, revealed that they are Gongshan muntjac. Studies are ongoing and the species found in Arunachal Pradesh is yet to be understood completely.
• Roosevelt’s Muntjac (Muntiacus rooseveltorum) The Roosevelt’s barking deer was discovered in 1929 in an expedition conducted by Theodore Roosevelt Junior and Kermit Roosevelt. This species of muntjac was under dispute due to its resemblance with two other species in its range. However, it is smaller than the common muntjacs. It was proposed that the Roosevelt’s muntjac is actually a subspecies until 1999 when extensive genetic studies proved that it is a species on its own. Due to the late discovery of this species, its population status and habitat range are unclear. It is listed as “data deficient” for the time being.
• Reeves’ Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi) Reeves’ Muntjac, or Chinese muntjac is native to Southern China and Taiwan. They are named after John Reeves, a British inspector from the East India Tea Company. The species was introduced in various parks in England in early 20th century. From that time muntjacs in England have, since escaped, spread widely in woodlands of the country. As they breed throughout the year, their numbers have increased largely. They are listed of “least concern”, due to their capability to reproduce and flourish rapidly.
• Fea’s Muntjac (Muntiacus feae) This species is named after zoologist Leonardo Fea who spotted this species first. The Fea’s Muntjac is also widely known as Tenasserim muntjac. It is native to Thailand and parts of Myanmar. It is quite similar in size to the common Indian muntjac but has a slightly darker coat. The population of Fea’s muntjac is under study. Especially due to the shy behavior and montane habitat of this species, very little is known about its range and distribution. It is listed as “data deficient” and more information and research is required concerning this species.
• Giant Muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) The Giant Muntjac is the largest species in the genus Muntiacus. It is found in the Annamite mountain range, also known as the Truong Son mountain chain, situated in Vietnam. It is twice as large as the common muntjac, capable of reaching a shoulder height of up to 70 cm. A full-grown adult can weigh up to 60 kg. This species was only discovered in the 1990’s and has been under study since then. Their population is listed as “endangered”. Hunting and loss of habitat are the major threats. It has a very small global range of habitat. Only little is known about its habitat preferences and distribution.
• Truong Son Muntjac (Muntiacus truongsonensis) The Truong Son Muntjac is also known as Annamite muntjac, because it lives in the Annamite mountain range. Opposite to its neighbour, the giant muntjac, the Annamite muntjac is one of the smallest of all muntjac species. An adult Annamite muntjac weights only between 11-15 kg. Due to its small size, it is also widely known as pygmy muntjacs or pygmy deer.
• Leaf Muntjac (Muntiacus putaoensis) The leaf muntjac is another small species of muntjac found in north-eastern Putao, Myanmar. It is also known as Putao muntjac or simply, leaf deer. It was discovered only in the late 1990’s and very little is known about it. Unlike other muntjacs, both males and females of this species have long visible canines, and the fawns bear no spots. They stand around 50 cm tall at shoulder height and adults weight up to 11 kilograms.
• Pu Hoat Muntjac (Muntiacus puhoatensis) The Pu Hoat Muntjac was discovered in 1997 in the Pu Hoat region of Vietnam. The small deer is extremely hard to spot in the wild. Due to this, very little is known about the species and its population status. DNA studies show that it is closely related to M. Rooseveltorum and M. Truongsonensis, indicating that the Pu Hoat muntjac may be actually a subspecies of any one of the mentioned two species of muntjacs. Pu Hoat muntjac is temporarily listed as a different species, as long as strong evidence of its relativeness to the other two species is not obtained.
• Sumatran Muntjac (Muntiacus Montanus) Bones of the Sumatran muntjac was discovered in 1914 in Sumatra. The bone specimens looked different than any known species of muntjac. However, a living Sumatran muntjac was not spotted until the 1930’s. It is sometimes referred to as a subspecies of the common muntjac or Muntiacus muntjac found in India. Due to lack of information, there are numerous taxonomical disputes and contradictions on the Sumatran muntjac. It’s listed as “data deficient”.
When considering the above information it is astounding to realize that many of the Muntjac species have just been discovered during the past 25 years. Very little is known about many of the species hence the confusion between their listings. Collectively, the barking deer tribe is flourishing due to their rapid reproduction rate. However, when each species is taken into account individually, only a few are actually flourishing. Loss of habitat, restricted habitat and local subsistence hunting are the major causes of the decline in the rarer species.