Do you see something a little strange about the deer in the picture? If your eyes were immediately drawn to those rather vampiric fangs protruding from its mouth, then your next thought might have been that this must be some sort of freak of nature, an accident of birth. That isn’t how deers come, is it? For the Water Deer, otherwise and popularly known as the Vampire Deer the answer is in the affirmative.
Let’s give the animal its proper name. This is the Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis inermis) and it is one of two subspecies (the other being the Korean variety) which have prominent tusks, downward-pointing canine teeth which make it look as if it’s had a run in with a Nosferatu type who has suddenly acquired the ability to ‘turn’ mammals other than humans. This feature makes the subspecies unique – they are the only two members of the genus Hydropotes.
It isn’t just the bucks that have these strange teeth – the does have them too but in the female they are usually less than a centimeter in length. The bucks, however, can have canines as large as 8cm in length (over three inches). The bucks born in springtime will develop these canines in the autumns and by their second spring they are usually about half the length that they will eventually become.
By the time that the buck deer have reached full maturity, their ‘vampire’ teeth will also have reached their maximum length. Yet these amazing canines are not fixed rigidly – they are positioned loosely in their sockets. This is so that the buck can move them backwards, out of the way, while he eats.
They are also used to demonstrate aggression. These teeth can be thrust out and while this happens the buck will also pull his teeth closer together by drawing in his lower lip. In this way he presents a rather imposing two-pronged toothy armament to his rivals. In this way, at least, the deer is similar to the vampires of the movies which are able to present and retract their fangs using (possibly) a similar loose-socket method.
The tusks of the water deer, however, are not used to any carnivorous behavior – they are simply for confrontations between the males. When this happens, the bucks approach each other and then walk in parallel for a while, checking out the strength and prowess of their opponent. If neither is overawed by the physical impression given by the other than they will fight – and in this species, that happens a lot.
Although it is almost unheard of for a water deer buck to be killed by another the fights between them can be staggeringly brutal. Most bucks show any number of scars on their head, shoulders and back. Ears, too, are often visibly torn. Yet when the right to mate is at stake, one can understand this pitiless prerogative.
The water deer originates from China and Korea but there is also a large population in the UK where the animal was introduced in the 1870s. It is there the deer acquired its vampire nick-name which has stuck ever since. Given the antagonistic nature of the males during the rut, one can only assume that if they were able to comprehend the comparison, they would probably accept it as a compliment.