‘Extinct’ deer might still be alive today

The last known Schomburgk’s deer died in captivity in 1938. Or so we thought.

Native to central Thailand, the wild population of Schomburgk’s deer (Rucervus schomburgki) died out from overhunting in 1932. But new evidence, gleaned from antlers obtained in late 1990 or early 1991, shows that it survived for at least an additional half century and might still be around today.

A trucker in Laos found a set of antlers, seemingly in fresh condition, in the early 1990s. He then gave the antlers to a shop in the northern Laos province of Phongsali. In February 1991, United Nations agronomist Laurent Chazée photographed them.

The Schomburgk's deer antlers are severed from the deer's head, sitting on concrete
The 1991 photograph of a Schomburgk’s deer’s antlers. (Credit: Laurent Chazée via Northwestern U.)

Gary Galbreath, professor of biological sciences at Northwestern University and an expert in Asian wildlife, and GB Schroering recently analyzed the antlers’ physical condition in those photos. Based on the widely spreading, basket-shaped, hyper-branched structure of the antlers, the team determined the antlers belonged to a Schomburgk’s deer. (Other Asian deer’s antlers do not have the same signature basket shape.)

Galbreath also confirmed that the antlers were fresh when photographed in 1991. The antlers—spotted with dark red to reddish-brown dried blood—had been cut from the deer’s head. The color of the blood and condition of the exposed bone marrow offered clues into the antlers’ age.

“The relative antiquity of the antler specimens can be assessed by the materials, such as dried marrow, still adhering to them,” says Galbreath. “Even the blood was still reddish; it would become black with increased age. In the tropics, the antlers would not continue to look this way even within a matter of months.”

Before they were listed as “extinct,” the deer were well documented in Thailand. Galbreath believes a small population probably also lived in a remote area in central Laos, where they just might still be living today.

The research will appear in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society.

Source: Northwestern University