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Why do fawns have white spots?

Asked by: Sophie Coker
School: Tioga Hills Elementary School
Grade: 1
Teacher: Mrs. Doolittle
Hobbies/Interests:  Reading, swimming, art
Career Interest: Doctor, teacher, president of the United States

Answer from George Catalano

Professor of Bioengineering

Research area: Turbulence, Aerodynamics, Environmental Ethics, Modeling Ecosystems, Restoration of Wolves, Animal Rights
PhD school: University of Virginia, Aerospace Engineering, 1977
Interests/hobbies: All things Italian especially Ferraris, Alfa Romeos and Ducatis, Model trains & cars
Family: Wife, Karen, is a registered yoga teacher at Yoga for Everybody at the Orthopedic Associates; lives with 2 Alaskan Malamutes, four more in our hearts

Young deer are called fawns or calves so let’s first find out a little background information on deer. Deer can be found around the world. They are native to all continents except for Australia and Antarctica. There are about 100 types of deer, including the whitetail deer, reindeer, elk, moose, mule deer, blacktail deer and caribou. Deer are members of the order Artiodactyls, which means that they have hoofs with an even number of toes. While deer can adapt well to just about any habitat, they prefer to live in "edge" habitats. Edges are human-made or natural habitat breaks, for instance from woods to croplands. According to modern wildlife biologists, fawns have a reddish-brown color covered with white spots, which help camouflage them and disappear when they are 3-4 months old. In the fall, deer will shed their summer coat and receive a much thicker winter coat.

There is a wonderful old Lakota Sioux story that addresses the question of why fawn have white spots as well. According to their tradition, “Long ago, when the world was new, Wakan Tanka, The Great Mystery, was walking around.  As he walked, he spoke to himself of the many things he had done to help the four-legged ones and the birds survive. However, as Wakan Tanka spoke, a mother deer came up to him.  Behind her was her small fawn, wobbling on weak new legs. ‘Great One,’ she said.  ‘It is true that you have given many gifts to the four-leggeds and the winged ones to help them survive.  It is true that you gave me great speed and now my enemies find it hard to catch me.  My speed is great protection, indeed.  But what of my little one here?  She does not yet have speed.  It is easy for our enemies, with their sharp teeth and their claws, to catch her.  If my children do not survive, how can my people live?’ Then Wakan Tanka made paint from the earth and the plants.  He painted spots upon the fawn's body so that, when she lay still, her color blended in with the earth and she could not be seen. “

In this case, modern science and ancient wisdom traditions offer very similar answers, don’t you think? Whatever the reason, the sight of a wobbly-legged fawn taking its first few shaky steps as it begins its journey through life is one of the magical events we can witness here in upstate New York.

Last Updated: 3/1/17