Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer

Written By: Ian @ World Deer

The Chinese water deer is a small deer of Asian origin, part of the Cervidae (order Artiodactyla) family. It can be found in the wild dwelling in the lush river bottoms of Korea and in Chang Jiang China along the Yangtze River valley.

What’s most notable about the Chinese Water Deer is that it’s the only species of deer in which stags or bucks do not grow antlers. Instead of antlers, Chinese Water Deer grow long canine teeth which are sharp and which curve away from the mouth. These tusks will typically protrude about 2 inches from the sides of its mouth.

How Big are Chinese Water Deer?

  • Head-Body Length – 77 to 100 cm
  • Shoulder Height – 45 to 55 cm
  • Tail length – 6 to 7.5 cm
  • Weight – 8 to 14 kg

What Does the Chinese Water Deer Look Like?

The Chinese Water Deer is one of the smallest species of deer, and is only slightly larger is size than the Reeve’s Muntjac.

Chinese Water Deer in the bushes

They have a distinctive stature, the back is rounded and arched with the rump standing higher than the forequarters. The legs are slender, with the hind legs being longer and sturdier than the forelegs. Both sexes are similar in size, although the males or bucks are slightly heavier than the females or does.

Do Chinese Water Deer Grow Antlers?

As has already been mentioned male Chinese water deer do not grow antlers. However, like most of the Muntjac species of deer, Chinese Water Deer bucks have well developed canine teeth. This is where they received the nickname the ‘Saber Tooth Deer’

The bucks use these when fighting with other bucks, or when defending themselves. They are especially sharp, and capable of causing severe injuries on opponents.

When fighting, the tusks are used for stabbing or slashing. In old animals the tusks are often broken or they may show visible signs of wear and tear. The deer’s canine teeth can grow to 6 cm in length and protrude down from the upper lip. They are often described as being fangs (part of the reason this species is sometimes called Vampire Deer) or tusks, but they’re teeth.

Females also grow tusks, but they are much smaller than those observed in the males. Female Chinese Water Deer canine teeth will usually protrude only 1 to 2 cm in length, meaning they are rarely visible.

Chinese water deer (saber tooth deer) by the water

The tusks have a special muscular hinge, which means they can move slightly to make grazing easier for both sexes.

Chinese Water Deer Coat & Coloring

In winter the coat of the Chinese Water Deer is a dark grey-ish or light brown color. The winter coat is long and scruffy looking. Usually the coat looks rather mottled in color, and this is because the hairs are pale at their base but darker at their tips. Often the coat is interspersed with darker hairs.

The hair on the flanks and back of Hydropotes Inermis is longer than that over the rest of the body. The winter coat is molted between April and May and replaced by a much smoother sleeker looking summer coat.

The summer coat is much brighter in color than the winter coat. It is a uniform dark brown color.

Head Appearance

The head of the Chinese Water Deer is small and tapers towards the nose.

The ears are large in size, and oval shaped.

The deer’s nose and eyes are black in color, and the head is usually a dark brown or a creamy grey color.

Males often have darker facial features than the females. There is often a white band of fur around the muzzle, and white patches of fur around the chin and on the throat.


The tail is 5 to 15 cm long. There are no white rump markings as is seen in many other species of deer.

Scent Glands

The Chinese Water Deer has a number of glands around its body where scent secretions are made. These are most commonly used to mark territorial areas.

The pre-orbital glands are found in front of the deer’s eyes, and in the Chinese Water Deer these glands are small.

There are also glands between the hooves, and on the back of the legs. The Chinese Water Deer is unusual in having glands on either side of its groin, a feature that is not seen in other species of deer.

Other Physical Characteristics to Note

One unusual feature of the Chinese Water Deer is the number of teats which the female has, most deer species have two, but the female Hydropotes inermis has 4.

female chinese water deer in a field

The Life of a Chinese Water Deer

The Chinese Subspecies is mainly found along the Yangtze River, where small populations are found by the Dongting, Poyang and Taihu lakes. They are also found in some coastal regions and on the Zhoushan islands.

The Korean subspecies is found in both North and South Korea.

These deer were first kept in Britain in 1873, when they were kept by London Zoo. In the 1890s they began to be kept at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, and from the 1920s at nearby Whipsnade Zoo.

They bred well in the UK, and eventually escaped, founding wild populations in England.

Today, Chinese Water Deer have spread into suitable habitat in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. Their distribution remains quite small and restricted though, and they have failed to spread out of these core areas.

The lack of spreading throughout England is thought to be due to their strong habitat preferences.

The areas that they have colonized are low-lying wetland areas, which are similar in character to their native habitats. They have failed to spread further a field.

A small wild population of Hydropotes inermis is also found in France.

Preferred Habitat

Chinese Water Deer live in areas of open swampy grasslands in their natural homes in China and Korea.

In Britain they are mainly found in swampy areas, reedbeds, and close to rivers sides. They are also found on agricultural and woodland areas close to these wet areas.

What Do Chinese Water Deer Eat?

Like other species of deer, the Chinese Water Deer is an herbivorous ruminant.

Chinese Water Deer are highly selective feeders, taking the most nutritious foodstuffs that are available. They prefer to feed on rich shoots, herbaceous plants and grasses in preference to poorer quality coarser foods.

These deer feed on a wide variety of plants including grasses, shoots, woody stems, herbaceous plants, brambles and aquatic plants. They have a wider diet in summer when more foods are available than in the winter. Most feeding takes place at dawn and at dusk.

How Long do Chinese Water Deer Live?

Most wild Chinese Water Deer live to be no more than 6 years of age. That’s not very long when compared to other types of deer. With some luck, these deer can live to be over 10 years of age.

The rate of mortality in is especially high in Hydropotes inermis for young animals, with a very high percentage of these deer dying during their first year of life.

Reproduction and Breeding in Hydropotes Inermis

This variety of deer can be an extremely prodigious breeder (important, since many don’t survive the first year, or live very long).

Litter sizes can be impressive, with up to 8 young being born (this is however exceptional, and not normal).

Typically, Chinese Water Deer will give birth to 1-3 young, with a 4-fawn litter being pretty common as well.

The Rutting of Chinese Water Deer

The mating season, known as the rut or rutting season for deer species, occurs each year between late November and early January.

During the rutting season males establish small territories, which contain a single doe. The bucks mate with the doe as she comes into season and is receptive.

Bucks fight among themselves for the best territories, sometimes using their sharp canine teeth to inflict harm on other males.

When in possession of a territory, bucks will fight intruding males. The bucks mark their territories in a number of ways. Feces and urine are used, and secretions from the eye glands are rubbed onto bushes or trees.

The bucks will sometimes dig small scrapes in the ground, which they then urinate on.

The Mating Ritual

Unlike many other species of deer, there is a distinct process of courtship between the buck and his doe.

Males have a whistling courtship call which they use to attract the female. Before mating with the doe, the buck will smell the female to judge whether she is ready to be bred, this is done with a ritualized display where the head is rocked from side to side.

If the buck believes the doe to be in estrus he will then mount her and mate with her.

The males and females will remain together for 2 to 3 months once mated.

How Chinese Water Deer Give Birth

The young are born the following May or June after a gestation period of between 200 and 210 days.

The newly born young weigh about 1kg, which given the low weight of the adult females is quite heavy, especially when more than one young is carried to term.

Chinese Water Deer fawns are spotted at birth, but these spots fade at about 8 weeks of age. After birth, the young are hidden in thick vegetation – a common practice among deer. When more than one young is born each one is hidden separately on its own, but in the same vicinity as its siblings. This is safer than all the young hiding in the same place. If a predator were to find the young when they were all together they would all be killed. If they are hidden separately although a predator may find one of the young, there is a chance that the other siblings would escape detection and thus survive.

The mother visits her young fawns regularly to suckle and care for them. Their growth is rapid. Weaning takes place at 3 months of age, and by 6 months of age the young are fully independent, forced away from their parent’s territory as the rut begins in the season of their birth.

Sexual maturity is reached at about 6 months of age, and young Hydropotes inermis does may breed in their first year, but many do not.

Males do not normally mate in their first year. Although they are capable of doing so, most are not strong enough to claim a territory of their own.

Chinese Water Deer Behavior & Habits

Most activity for this type of deer is concentrated around the hours of dusk and dawn. This is when most feeding takes place. Throughout most of the day Chinese Water Deer hide and rest in dense vegetation.

When alarmed Chinese Water Deer they emit a loud bark like alarm call and quickly run away.

They lead a mostly solitary life, for much of the year living alone rather than gathering as a group of deer. An exception to this however, is in areas where particularly high densities occur, and then sometimes they live in pairs.

During the rutting period in late winter they become more sociable and are more frequently seen together. At this time the pair of Chinese Water Deer bonds, remaining together for several months.

Sometimes in the winter months large groups may collect in places that are an abundant source of food such as on arable fields.

Picture of By: Ian from World Deer

By: Ian from World Deer

A passionate writer for WorldDeer using the most recent data on all animals with a keen focus on deer species.

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