A rare deer species first discovered by the sons of Pres. Teddy Roosevelt 85 years ago has been rediscovered in Vietnam. Camera-trap images of Roosevelt’s muntjacs (aka Roosevelt’s barking deer, Muntiacus rooseveltorum) and other samples collected in Xuan Lien Nature Reserve are the sole record of the species in the country, which was previously known only in nearby Laos. Scientists have not observed the deer alive in Laos or anywhere else since 1929.
According to a release from Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, scientists from Vietnam National University and other institutions collected camera-trap photos of two Roosevelt’s muntjacs during a multiyear study of the nature reserve’s other deer species. They also collected fecal samples in the forest as well as horn and skin samples at the house of a local poacher. DNA from these specimens has been compared with the 1929 skull at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, confirming the species’s rediscovery.
Roosevelt’s muntjac has an interesting and controversial history. The original sample was found in Laos during an expedition led by Theodore, Jr., and Kermit Roosevelt, one year after they became the first Westerners to shoot and kill a giant panda. The deer itself was actually collected by Harold Jefferson Coolidge, Jr., the American zoologist who went on to become a founding director of both the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund. Scientists encountered no other specimens for decades, leading many to speculate if the deer really was its own species or if it had been misidentified as two similar species that live in the region. The existence of the species was finally confirmed in 1999 when DNA tests of several new skulls collected in Laos a few years earlier revealed that Roosevelt’s muntjac was, indeed, a third muntjac species.
A paper about the rediscovery appears in the February issue of Conservation Genetics. As the authors wrote, “Given the rarity of this species and the escalating hunting and habitat loss in the region, it is important to conduct field research to assess its population status. Such information is critically needed to design a conservation plan for this highly elusive and threatened taxon.”
The IUCN currently lists Roosevelt’s muntjac as “data deficient,” as it has never been studied alive. Maybe this rediscovery will finally allow that to change.
Photos: Xuan Lien Nature Reserve