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An Ultimate Ungulate Fact Sheet
Subfamily Cervinae
Old World (Plesiometacarpal) deer
The Cervinae are almost entirely restricted to Eurasia, in direct contrast to the primarily New World Capreolinae. Indeed, only only one member of this subfamily, the highly-adaptable red deer or wapiti (Cervus elaphus) can be found outside of Eurasia, with subspecies found in both North America and on the coast of north Africa. Cervine deer are adapted to a wide range of lowland habitats, including forests, swampland, floodplains, and grasslands. Excluded from higher altitudes by goats and sheep (Caprinae), only a few members of the Cervinae are found in high-elevation or mountainous regions.

Southern Asia was the center of evolution for this subfamily, and the Cervinae remain one of the most dominant ungulate groups in Eurasia. Early deer arose in the tropics, and the fossil record demonstrates repeated radiations from tropical climates into more northerly territories during the Pleistocene. Today, the tropics retain the majority of cervine diversity, although several cold-adapted species have become highly successful.

Two tribes are recognized:

  1. Cervini - "true" deer
  2. Muntiacini - muntjacs

The two tribes display distinct body plans. Muntjacs are often seen as the most primitive of deer, resembling the ancestral stock from which the rest of the deer (Cervinae and Capreolinae) evolved. However, genetic evidence has displaced this theory; it is now thought that many of the "primitive" characters of muntjacs have been secondarily acquired. Muntjacs are small in size (from less than 10 kg to 40 kg) and have a "creeping" form well-suited for forest life. The antlers of muntjacs are short, but the upper canines grow into tusks (similar to the Moschidae and Tragulidae). On the other hand, the Cervini are generally larger in size and have significantly larger antlers. The upper canines, while present in some species, are always small.

The taxonomy of this subfamily has undergone some significant changes in the past few decades. The tribe Muntiacini was formerly considered to be a separate subfamily (the Muntiacinae), but is now included within the Cervinae. Also of note is the description of several new muntjacs (Muntiacus sp.) from southeastern Asia, raising the number of species in this genus from as few as five recognized species (in 1990) to eleven. While some of these "new" species are previously known subspecies elevated to unique species, many of these muntjacs have only recently been discovered by western science. Within the Cervini, the former subgenera of the traditional genus Cervus have been elevated into full genera.

The plesiometacarpal foot structure is a diagnostic feature of this group, with the second and fifth metapodials being reduced to proximal splinters of bone adjacent to the 'wrists'. Tarsal glands are always absent. Unlike the New World deer (Capreolinae), the antlers begin growing immediately after the last pair is shed.

The Cervinae Family Tree
Branch lengths are not proportional to time
(From Hernandez-Fernandez and Vrba, 2005)



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Elaphodus cephalophus

Muntiacus atherodes

Muntiacus feae

Muntiacus muntjak

Muntiacus montanus

Muntiacus vaginalis

Muntiacus crinifrons

Muntiacus gongshanensis

Muntiacus reevesi

Muntiacus vuquangensis

Muntiacus rooseveltorum

Muntiacus puhoatensis

Muntiacus putaoensis

Muntiacus truongsonensis

Axis axis

Axis porcinus

Axis calamianensis

Axis kuhlii

Dama dama

Dama mesopotamica

Elaphurus davidianus

Przewalskium albirostris

Cervus elaphus

Cervus nippon

Rusa alfredi

Rusa marianna

Rusa timorensis

Rusa unicolor

Rucervus duvaucelii

Rucervus eldii

Rucervus schomburgki

Click on the species above to learn more,
or jump to the Cervinae Species List
Literature Cited

Geist, V. 1998. Deer of the World: Their Evolution, Behaviour, and Ecology. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Hernandez-Fernandez, M., and E. S. Vrba. 2005. A complete estimate of the phylogenetic relationships in Ruminantia: a dated species-level supertree of the extant ruminants. Biological Review; 80: 269-302.

Pitra, C., J. Fickel, E. Meijaard, and P. C. Groves. 2004. Evolution and phylogeny of old world deer. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution; 33: 880-895.

Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder [editors]. 2005. Mammal Species of the World (3rd Edition). Johns Hopkins University Press, 2,142 pp.