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Observe a female European moose taking care of her newborn calf in a forest in northern Russia
A female European moose and her calf eating grass and bark in a Russian forest.

Deer are specialized herbivores, as is reflected in their large and anatomically complex digestive organs, their mobile lips, and the size and complexity of their teeth. However, deer rely little on coarse-fibred grasses, and they have not evolved grazing specializations comparable to those found in bovids. Instead, they are highly selective feeders on young grasses, herbs, lichens, foliage, buds, aquatic plants, woody shoots, fruit, and natural ensilage—that is, plant food characterized by low fibre but high protein content, toxicity, and digestibility.


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caribou
Caribou, or reindeer (Rangifer tarandus).

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Dean Biggins/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The bias of deer toward high-quality food has its origin in the very high demands of antler growth for minerals, protein, and energy. Antlers are “bone horns” that are grown and shed annually. The growing antlers are encased in “velvet,” a highly vascularized, nerve-filled skin covered by short, soft hairs. The blood-engorged, growing antlers are warm to the touch and quite sensitive. Depending on the species, they take up to 150 days to grow, after which the velvet dies and is forcefully removed by rubbing the antlers against branches and small trees. Along with some blood residue, this imparts a brownish colour to the otherwise white antler bone. Antlers finish growing before the mating season and are used as weapons and shields in combat or as display organs in courtship. Normally shed after the mating season, antlers may be retained in some territorial tropical deer for more than a year. The relative demand for energy and nutrients declines with body size but increases exponentially for antler growth. Therefore, large-bodied species require more nutrients and energy to grow antlers than do small-bodied species. These requirements cannot be obtained from grasses but only from nutrient-rich dicotyledonous plants.