Meet Asia’s Saber-Toothed Deer


Peter Halasz

Why grow antlers when you can have fangs? People normally associate “saber teeth” with bloodthirsty ice age cats, but a few modern critters also have them—including some rather docile herbivores.

Meet the musk deer family (aka: the Moschidae). To date, seven species have been identified, all of which hail from Asia—though the fossil record reveals that their prehistoric kin once roamed Europe and North America as well. Also, largely due to their lack of antlers, these guys aren’t technically considered deer, despite their common name.

In lieu of headgear, the animals have evolved some ferocious-looking canines. Males boast a pair of curved tusks protruding from their upper jaws, which are used to ward off rivals once mating season heats up. But it’s a very different anatomical feature that’s used for wooing the fairer sex.

“Musk” deer are so called because of an unusual gland located near the males’ hindquarters. These sacs secrete a pungent chemical that’s sprayed liberally throughout their territories. Females find the odor utterly tantalizing, and—sadly—so do poachers. Humans have long been using this substance, the potent scent of which is even documented in the Quran. Hailed a beguiling aphrodisiac and an effective medicinal ingredient, moschid musk is “one of the most valuable products in the natural kingdom and can be worth three times its weight in gold,” says conservationist Stuart Chapman. While it’s possible to “milk” live specimens, hunters prefer killing these animals before removing their glands entirely. Due to this regrettable practice, most species are now endangered.

Intriguingly, a completely different variety of fanged, deer-like mammal also resides in Asia. The Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis) is a beagle-sized herbivore that’s been known to swim for miles on end in search of food and shelter in the wetlands it calls home. During the 1800s, they were introduced to England and subsequently began spreading through the British countryside as well.