Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 18, 2012

A Melanistic Moment

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:46 am

One technique of a wandering naturalist is to wander the back roads until something presents itself. On a particularity crummy day in the backwoods of Northern Michigan I did just that. It was one of those dark days when you can’t quite convince yourself that you are totally awake. Light rain showers punctuated the morning drive and seemed to set the tone for the rare things I did come across.

Let me tell you what I saw and go from there. There was a spoon, a Cyclops eating a sign, and a melanistic deer. Now if that list doesn’t instill a sense of curiosity then you needn’t proceed any further. If it does, then please do (proceed, that is, to the next paragraph). Even if you have seen a spoon before, you have to admit that the last two items certainly need some explanation.

First, the kitchen utensil. My random drive brought me to a spoon in the road. Now, everyone knows what to do when they arrive at a fork in the road – they need to make a decision, right? They either take the right or left route. Robert Frost would opt for the route less travelled while others would take the route indicated by the poet Garmin. There is no straight option – that would lead to a plummeting (into the ditch) followed by a towing (by the Frost Towing company).  But, what does one do when a spoon is present? This is a rare thing.

My road spoon was flattened by previous traffic (which on this road is not very frequent) but it was still identifiable. I decided that one is required to turn around when a spoon is present, so I did. The effort did not result in anything especially notable except for leading me to a sign-eating tree.

To be precise, this tree was a sugar maple, and the sign it was consuming was a well-rusted “No Trespassing” sign. Only the “Tres” part was visible, so I have to assume that’s what it said, anyway. Perhaps it noted “Mauvaise enfant Tres bon permit” as a crude French way to announce “Very good poor child allowed.” Perhaps the owners of the place were announcing their willingness to help the unfortunate. However, in this part of Northern Michigan the only written French appears as “No” in the numerous “No Trespassing” signs.

Regardless of what the sign used to say, that the maple tree in question was a Cyclops was not in doubt. Call it a branch scar if you must, but that tree was definitely looking at the world through one eye. This one would fit nicely into a Halloween landscape. Like the spoon, I saw this rare item as a signal to turn around once again.

This time I spotted a trio of White-tailed Deer grazing at the far end of an open field. Because one of them appeared nearly black, I stopped to get a better look – thinking it was an escaped exotic such as a Fallow Deer or some African Antelope. It turned out to be a Whitetail, but was a rare example of a Melanistic deer.  Albino deer may be uncommon but melanistic deer are much scarcer.

Everybody knows what albinism is – or at least they know without knowing that they know. In a black and white world, an albino is all white. Individuals lack skin pigment of any kind. There is no such thing as a partial albino – something either is or it is not an albino. Any mix of white and normal is called Pie-bald. Melanism, on the other hand, is a different beast – so to speak – because it involves the over production of a skin pigment called Melanin. The pigment can be produced anywhere from slightly over done to totally dominant. So, an animal can be semi-melanistic. It seems that recessive genes are responsible for this effect, so it appears on a hit or miss basis in most critters (although it is very common in Grey Squirrels).

Melanisim is very rare in White-tailed Deer. Over the years there have been notable examples of jet-black deer and random spottings of very-dark deer with varying shades of black. Texas is apparently the hot-spot for black deer in North America, in case you are interested.

My deer retained her white belly and under parts as well as a fringe of reddish orange on the legs and top of the head. The rest was a deep ashy gray and resembled, for lack of a better comparison, the shading on an antelope. The dark portion ended at a definitive border on her flanks. She was a beautiful animal (and this coming from a man who has expressed on more than one occasion that deer are ugly).

As an astute reader you might recall that I was out on a misty day and might be thinking that she was just wet. I can put that aside because wet deer are more intensely orangish or light gray (depending on the season) and are not darker. Secondly, she brought along additional proof that rain had nothing to do with her shading.

She bounded off after only a few seconds of observation. Her two fawns followed suit. The trio vanished within a few bounds but not before revealing that her fawns were normally colored. They were wet little orange spotted deer.

Ahh, it was a rare day in the North Woods. I’ve been past that point several times over the past month to see if I could spot her again, but without luck. The Cyclops is still there, however.


  1. Those sign-eaters aren’t really trees, but Ents. They can be found all over, but you have to take the photo quickly before they walk away!

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