Featured Photo: Nick Trehearne

Deer are the most common and prevalent big game animals in North America, numbering in the millions. According to two of the better
known record-keeping organizations the Pope & Young Club and the Boone & Crockett Club, there are four major subspecies of deer:

  • Whitetails
  • Mule deer
  • Blacktail (both Columbia and Sitka, which are both mule deer subspecies)
  • Coues deer (a whitetail subspecies)

All deer are not created equal

While they are all deer, in the scientific classification Odocoileus, the mule deer gets its name from its overly large ears; its Latin name, Odocoileus hemionus, means “half-mule.” Whitetails are Odocoileus virginianus — the latter part of that title referring to when the species was once known as the “Virginia deer.”

While mule deer get their common name from those big mule-like ears, whitetails get theirs from the completely white underside of their overly-large tail. At first glance, however, when you look at the rear end of a mule deer you see mostly white, which is a very large rump patch of white that’s only partially covered by a rope-like, white tail with a black tip. Whether a mule deer’s tail is up or down, you can always see plenty of white on the rump. Conversely, a whitetail’s tail normally covers most of its narrow white patch with a thick, dark tail that can be raised to alert others of danger.

Related: How-to guide to public-land mule deer

Here are some other differences between the two:


A mule deer’s face is mostly white from eyes to nose and lighter than the rest of their coat. A whitetail’s face is primarily brown and similar in color to the rest of its coat. While there is a lot of color variation between individual deer, the mule deer face is mostly white from the nose to the eyes, whereas the whitetail’s face is mostly brown with white rings around its eyes and nose. Both have a white patch on their throats.

Ear Size

Mule deer were named for their mule-like ears, which are larger than those of whitetail. The mule deer’s ears also stand about a 30-degree angle on the head, as opposed to the whitetail’s which are rounded and stand more erect.

Fur Color

Mule deer have a coat that is more greyish-brown, while whitetails are more of a reddish-brown color. However, in winter whitetail transition to more of a greyish-brown colored coat as well, making this a very tricky identification tactic.

Body Size

Both mule deer and whitetail deer are similar in size, weighing between 80 and 400 lbs. depending on age, nutrition, etc. Mule deer tend to have a stockier build, but again, this is an unreliable factor. When it comes to body size, both follow Bergmann’s rule, which states that an animal’s body mass is larger the further away from the equator it lives.

Antler Shape

Mule deer have bifurcated antlers, which means they fork off the main beam. Both continue to grow and fork again from there. Whitetail deer have one main beam from which all other tines emerge. Both shed their antlers annually.


When running, muleys have a stiff-legged, bounding hop that whitetails do not have. Whitetails gallop rather than hop.

Related: How to score a deer

Related: New research on deer vision