Hydropotes inermisChinese water deer

Geographic Range

The Chinese water deer is found in the lower Yangtze Basin of east-central China and in Korea. The species was also introduced and became wild in England and France (Butzler, 1990; Allen, 1940).


Chinese water deer live among tall reeds, rushes along rivers, and in tall grass on mountains and cultivated fields. They also inhabit swampy regions and open grasslands. They are adept at hiding, and any cover seems sufficient to give them shelter. Although not adverse to water and swamps, they prefer drier land. When the the cultivated fields that they occupy are cut, they may be found lying in the furrows and hollows of open fields (Butzler, 1990; Allen, 1940; Wilson, 1993; Brown, 1991).

Physical Description

Chinese water deer are relatively small in size, ranging in length from 775-1,000 mm. They have a short tail, 60-75 mm length. The hair is generally thick and harsh. It is longest on the flanks and rump, with a maximium length of 40 mm in the winter coat. The top of the face is grayish and reddish brown, the chin and upper throat are whitish, and the back and sides are usually a uniform yellowish brown, finely striped with black. The underparts are white. Both sexes lack antlers, but the upper canine teeth, especially in the males, are enlarged, forming fairly long, slightly curved tusks. These saber-like upper canines are the most conspicuous feature of the bucks. Theyprotude up to about 52 mm from the upper jaw and constitute sharp, dangerous weapons. The canines of the female are much smaller, scarcely 5 mm on the inner side. A dark spot on the sides of the lower lip behind the upper canines makes the canines more conspicuous. A small scent gland is present on the face in front of the eyes on both sexes; this is the only known case of such glands in the Cervidae (Nowak, 1991; Butzler, 1990; Allen, 1940; Brown, 1991).

  • Range mass
    12 to 18.5 kg
    26.43 to 40.75 lb
  • Average mass
    12.9 kg
    28.41 lb


The mating of the Chinese water deer is seasonal. In China mating occurs from November to January, and most young are born in late May and June. In the European zoos, mating usually occurs in May. Estimates of the gestation period range from about 170 to 210 days. Females are said sometimes to give birth to up to eight young at a time, more than are produced by any other kind of deer. In a survey of zoos, however, it was found that there were usually only two offspring per birth or occasionally three. After gestation, the female gives birth, often leaving her normal range and becoming solitary. The calf remains concealed for the first few weeks, emerging only when the mother visits to suckle it. Like many deer, the young animals have a camouflaged coat with light spots in parallel longitudinal lines. This pattern disappears with age. Lactation lasts several months, and thus the female deer are occupied with one or another aspect of reproduction for most of the year. In contrast, males contribute nothing to the rearing of their offspring. For a few weeks prior to the mating season the males compete for access to receptive females.

Males reach sexual maturity at 5-6 months, and females at 7-8 months. The lifespan of the Chinese water deer is about 10-12 years (Butzler, 1990; Allen, 1940; Nowak, 1991; Wilson, 1993; Ohtaish and Sheng, 1993; Brown, 1991; Putnam. 1988; MacDonald, 1987).

  • Key Reproductive Features
  • gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate)
  • sexual
  • Range number of offspring
    6 (high)
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    6 (low) months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    183 days



The Chinese water deer rarely congregates in herds; it is generally found alone or in pairs. Its quiet, unobtrusive behavior, concealment in dense vegetation, is its best protection from enemies. To ensure this solitude, water deer bucks do not tolerate other animals of their sex in close proximity and defend their territories against all rivals. They do tolerate the company of one or a few female water deer. The females may accompany the buck in the search of food and rest in his territory. Fighting bucks stand approximately parallel to one another with their heads at about the shoulder level. By swinging their heads down, the bucks attempt to wound the opponent in the nape of the neck or on the shoulders with their canines. They often succeed in tearing out strips of hair and skin, causing painful and dangerous wounds. The generally marked aggressiveness of the bucks towards one another increases even more during the mating season. If an opponent is defeated, he is pursued relentlessly and driven out of the territory. Presumably the victorious bucks would kill the defeated if the latter did not appease them through a gesture of surrender: they lay their head and neck flat on the ground, at which point the stronger animal breaks off the fight.

Despite their unsociable behavior, the Chinese water deer alert each other to approaching danger through a brief barking that serves as a warning vocalization. The alarm cry is shrill. When a Chinese water deer is disturbed, it humps its back and travels by a series of leaps. The Chinese water deer can swim for several kilometers and often moves back and forth between islets in search of cover and food.

Water deer bucks regularly mark their territories by rubbing their forehead on tree trunks. Although no forehead glands have been found to date on the water deer, the sites that have been marked are sniffed enthusiastically by other deer. Other scent markings may also be left from the interdigital glands when the deer paw on the ground. Dung deposits also appear to serve as scent markings (Butzler, 1990; Wilson, 1993; Allen, 1940; Nowak, 1991; Hofmann, 1988; Brown, 1991).

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

The diet of the Chinese water deer includes reeds, coarse grasses, vegetables, and beets. The Chinese water deer has a four chambered stomach, but the rumen pillars are poorly developed. Because of this the deer cannot digest the carbohydrates from plant material very efficiently. Thus the deer must select foods low in fiber but high in soluble carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Chinese water deer are highly selective feeders, taking herbs, forbs, and young sweet grasses, rather than the coarser and more fibrous vegetation of mature grasses (Nowak, 1991; Allen, 1940; MacDonald, 1987; Putnam, 1988).

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

In the wild, the Chinese water deer is heavily hunted in order to obtain colostrum, which is sold for use in folk medicine. Colostrum, milk characterized by high protein and antibody content, is secreted for a few days after the deer gives birth. Also, thousands of Chinese water deer are sold as food each year in Europe (Allen, 1940; Webster, 1994).

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

The Chinese water deer often comes into conflict with man when they eat his crops. They may also be pests of commercial forrestry (Putnam, 1988; MacDonald, 1987).

Conservation Status

In the wild, the Chinese water deer is heavily hunted. Although it is not classified as an endangered species, there recently were estimated to be only 10,000 individuals remaining in the wild in China (Butzler, 1990). IUCN -- Rare.

Other Comments

The Chinese water deer has been bred extensively in captivity. Many individuals escaped from the Duke of Bedford's Woburn Park in England and established a feral population (Butzler, 1990)


Demetra Katopodes (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


uses touch to communicate

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


Nowak, R. M. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World. Fifth Edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Butzler, W. 1990. Grzimek's Encyclopedia Mammals. Volume five. McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, New York.

Hofmann, L. 1988. Journal of Zoology. Vol 216. The Zoological Society of Oxford University Press, London.

Allen, J. 1940. Mammals of China and Mongolia. Part two. The American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Ohtaish, N. and Sheng, H. 1993. Deer of China: Biology and Management. Elsevier, New York.

Brown, R. E. 1991. The Biology of Deer. Springer-Verlag, New York, Berlin, Tokyo.

Wilson, D. 1993. Mammal Species of the World. Second edition. Smithsonian Institiution Press, Washington.

MacDonald, D. 1987. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Facts on File Publications, New York.

Putman, R. 1988. The Natural History of Deer. Cornell University Press, New York.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary, 1994. Merriam-Webster Incorporated, Massachusetts.