Colours of Wildlife: Reeves Muntjac

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Reeves Muntjac

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Reeves Muntjac by Willem

I've been illustrating many prehistoric deer and other ungulates recently. A common theme that emerged was that early precursors of our modern-day browsing and grazing deer had very long, sharp canine teeth, looking more like vicious predators than gentle herbivores. While there were a great many such sabretooth precursor-deer, there are actually today still a few of these hoofed sabretooths surviving. I've already featured Chevrotains which are very basal ruminants, close to the origin of deer, antelopes, pronghorns and giraffes; I've also shown you the strange Musk Deer which is not a true deer but in fact a kin-group close to the antelopes. Today I'd like to introduce you to true deer with fangs – the Muntjacs!

Specifically, I am featuring the best-known species, Reeves's Muntjac, Muntiacus reevesi. In the wild, the species occurs in southern and eastern China, and the island of Taiwan. They've been bred much in captivity, and individuals that have escaped or been released are now living wild in Britain and mainland Europe, and Japan. The species is named for John Reeves, who was employed by the British East India Company during the nineteenth century. Other species have also been named for Reeves, as he was active at bringing Oriental animals to the attention of Western science.

In appearance and behaviour, this is a typical muntjac. The name 'muntjac' comes via the Dutch 'muntjak' from a native Sundanese word for the animals. An alternative English name for them is 'barking deer'. The earliest known muntjacs turned up about 15 million years ago in the Miocene and were already very similar to those living today. They occur from India and Sri Lanka eastward to China and the Indonesian Islands. Twelve species are currently recognized. They're all small deer, with the recently discovered Giant Muntjac, as you might guess the largest species, reaching 50 kg/110 lbs in bodyweight. Reeves's muntjac varies from about 10 to 18 kg/22 to 40 lbs in bodyweight, and stands about 40-50 cm/16-20" at the shoulder. The short antlers are found only in the male, and can grow to 15 cm/6" in length. Like those of other muntjacs, they are angled backward from the rear of the skull rather than rising upward above the eyebrows. There are usually just two points per antler, and the shorter, inward-facing point of each antler is often hidden amidst the fur of the pedicel (the 'stalk' of the antler) and the top of the head. Reeves' muntjac has a rich golden-reddish fur, with dark lines coming down from the antlers and merging into the dark muzzle. Females have knobs on their heads but no antlers. The canine teeth of the male reach 5 cm/2" in length.

A funny fact about muntjacs is that they have extremely diverse chromosome numbers! In the Indian Muntjac, the male has seven chromosomes and the female six; this is the lowest chromosome number for any mammal. But in Reeves's muntjac, the chromosomes number 46! Other muntjacs are in between. The puzzle for science is to figure out how the course of evolution might have landed such vastly different chromosome numbers between the muntjacs, even while they all outwardly look much alike.

Muntjacs are adapted as skulkers keeping a low profile in dense forest, similar to Duikers in Africa and Brocket deer in the Americas. They stick mostly to well-trodden paths through the thick undergrowth. They're most active around dawn and dusk. They're often found alone, but a male will share a territory with females it might mate with. They eat mostly plant foods, from leaves and flowers to fruit, nuts, bark and woody twigs. They also eat non-plant foods like fungi, birds' eggs and carrion. They even occasionally kill and eat small mammals and birds. They forage mostly close to the forest floor, making soft growling noises. Like giraffes, they have long tongues with which they can grab foliage and pull it into their mouths. Like other deer and bovids, they chew the cud, enabling them to extract more nutrition from their plant-based diet.

The lines at the corners of their eyes are actually gland ducts from which they exude a creamy, scented secretion. They rub this against trees and bushes to mark their territories. Nevertheless, they're not extremely aggressively territorial and a male will tolerate another male in its territory unless that male is in rut. When they do fight, they will use their antlers but mainly their tusks, sometimes inflicting deep wounds.

In Europe, these muntjacs inhabit a greater variety of habitats than in their native haunts. This is likely because they've been released into these habitats with no choice but having to find a way to survive, or starve. In addition, in Britain there are currently no large predators that keep their numbers under control. The muntjacs have multiplied exponentially and are now considered potentially harmful invaders. They are on the controlled animal list for Europe, with laws limiting their breeding, importation, transportation and release. They can cause damage to native forests, especially by stripping bark thus killing small trees – thus known both for barking and for debarking! The also compete with indigenous deer species like the roe and red deer. But the negative effects are only when the muntjacs are at high concentrations; at low population levels, they may even have a beneficial effect on the forests they dwell in, opening up undergrowth and creating new habitat for small critters.

A reason why they're so potentially invasive, is because they are very fecund. Although a doe carries only one fawn at a time, she reaches sexual maturity at only six months of age, and can live to the age of twelve. A buck reaches sexual maturity at nine months. In Britain, the mating season is from October to March, while in tropical and subtropical regions in China, they can breed year-round. As the buck approaches the doe, he makes a buzzing sound; she may respond with a cat-like whine. After mating, the buck separates from the doe and sheds his antlers. The fawn is carried for seven months. After birth, only the mother cares for it, nursing it with her milk. The fawn grows rapidly and is weaned at the age of two months. Being able to get its own food from then on, it makes no further demands on its mother. When it reaches sexual maturity, the mother will chase it out of her own territory to establish its own.

The barking call of the muntjac is rather puzzling. It doesn't seem to play a significant role in communicating with other muntjacs, such as warning them of the presence of a predator, or challenging them for dominance. It is actually uttered when another muntjac or a predator approaches, but may be mainly done for the muntjac's own sake, as an expression of fear or anxiety! But they may in the process unintentionally be warning other nearby animals, or even people, of the presence of a predator.

There is much for muntjacs to be anxious about in the wild. In their native range in Asia, large predators that may feed on them include tigers, leopards, dholes, crocodiles and pythons. In Europe, the only predators that may kill fawns, but not easily full-grown muntjacs, are foxes. But in Asia and in Europe, they're also at risk from human hunters, having tasty meat. Nevertheless, they're not currently in danger of extinction.

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