Muntjac mysteries

Striped rabbits weren’t the only surprise from our Xe Sap camera trap photos. These electronic eyes also snapped pictures of an elusive and little known species of deer: the Annamite dark muntjac. It isn’t as beautifully wrapped as the Annamite striped rabbit, but don’t let its modest appearance fool you: this is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic mammals in all of Southeast Asia. Where to begin the tale of the dark muntjac? It’s probably best to begin at the beginning. But for dark muntjac even that is a difficult proposition: this diminutive deer has a complex and tortuous history. In the early 1930s, Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt Jr, sons of the famous US president, collected a previously unknown species of dark-colored muntjac in northern Laos. The specimen was unique: small in stature, with legs seemingly several inches too short for the compact body, sporting a rich reddish-tinted chocolate coat, and a characteristic orange tuft of fur crowning the head. Even a cursory glance indicated that it was very different from the red muntjac (Muntiacus muntjac) that is common throughout the region. Undoubtedly a new type of deer. The species was named Muntiacus rooseveltorum in honor of the expedition leaders. And then it was largely forgotten.

Fast-forward sixty-plus years. The year is 1997, and Vietnam, which has come under new scrutiny by biologists delving into the unexplored natural wonders of this country, has yielded an astonishing array of mammal discoveries. In 1993 the news of the Saola shocked the world. People asked: If an animal this large and charismatic was hiding in these mountains, could there be other unknown species? The answer was yes. In 1994, the large-antlered muntjac was described from hunter-killed specimens found in north-central Vietnam. Shortly after biologists stumbled upon more unusual muntjac remains: small skulls with thumbnail-sized antlers that lacked the typical first-antler branch or pedicle. Later surveys turned up skins that were almost black in color: very different from the coppery-tan coat of common and large-antlered muntjac. Following genetic work, a new species of muntjac, named Muntiacus truongsonensis, was proclaimed. It was the third large ungulate to be described from the Annamites that decade.

Large-antlered and dark muntjacs.  Illustration by Joyce Powzyck
Large-antlered and dark muntjacs, both recently described. Illustration by Joyce Powzyck

And now the story takes an interesting turn of events: Some experts thought that the two described dark muntjacs, Muntiacus truongsonensis and Muntiacus rooseveltorum, might be the same species. This isn’t that rare in the annals of zoology: several “new” species turn out to be variants of already-described animals. And indeed the two dark muntjac vouchers specimens seemed similar enough to make this plausible. But when scientists started digging further into the dark muntjac mystery there was a strange twist to the tale: morphological data from hunter-collected specimens and camera trap photographs from both Laos and Vietnam seemed to suggest that there were at least two types of dark muntjac roaming the Annamites. These dark muntjac varieties don’t necessarily correspond to the described rooseveltorum and truongsonensis species—but they don’t necessarily not correspond to them either. Are you sufficiently confused? Good. Then buckle up, because we’re not done yet. Additional data, taken largely from camera trap photos and analyzed by the muntjac expert Rob Timmins, indicate that there could be one or more additional dark muntjac varieties in these jungles. That is to say: there could be three or more species of dark muntjac in this region. In biological parlance, we say that the dark muntjacs form a “species complex,” or a group of morphologically similar animals that we believe sufficiently distinct to merit species-level status. So let’s cut to the chase: exactly how many dark muntjac species are there? We don’t know. To solve that question biologists need both morphological and genetic data from numerous specimens from across the Annamites landscape. A monumental undertaking. But we’re working on it . . .

I was thrilled to learn that our camera traps in Xe Sap had captured dark muntjac. The photos are haunting in both their beauty and simplicity, and it occurs to me now, as I flip back through them, that it would be easy to assume that these were unremarkable photographs of just another deer, as humdrum as pictures of the ever-common red muntjac. Had I not known better, I would assume that this diminutive deer was as simplistic as its innocent-looking appearance suggested. But it is anything but. Instead these photos give us an intimate glimpse into the natural history of one of the most intriguing wildlife mysteries in Southeast Asia: the muddled, complicated, beguiling dark muntjac complex. It is my hope that these pictures can provide details that will help us sort out the questions surrounding the group: How many species are there? What are the species-specific distributions? What are the habitat preferences? Answering these questions is more than scratching an academic itch: we need to know this information if we are going to protect the dark muntjacs. And we must protect this fascinating animal.

Dark muntjac camera trap photo
Dark muntjac camera trap photo
Dark muntjac camera trap photo
Dark muntjac camera trap photo

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One thought on “Muntjac mysteries”

  1. Excellent concise and readable description of this complex (!) situation. One of the problems with not understanding the ‘true’ no. of species is that they cannot be listed by the IUCN – meaning they often don’t qualify for conservation attention/funding. Also, on a biogeographical note, it appears that the new and very small leaf deer/muntjac (Muntiacus putaoensis) described from northern Myanmar ca. 1999 is most closely related to truongsonensis out of all the muntjacs. Which suggests that these now isolated, divergent lineages were once connected by contiguous suitable habitat, reflecting the role of climate and vegetation change on the entire region’s fascinating biogeography. Great post on this issue – thanks!

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