Key deer are the smallest subspecies of the Virginia White Tailed Deer. This one was checking out our truck. This small size was selected to help them survive in the harsh conditions the islands offer.
They are an endangered species, and are found only in the refuge, which is 84,351 acres on 25 islands in the lower keys. The current population is estimated to be just 900 deer. This one was grazing on the side of the road, which brings one of the greatest problems for the deer, being hit by cars. (I'd like to be able to emphasize my amazing skill as a wildlife photographer, sneaking up on this deer and photographing it, but one tourist just walked up and patted it on the head while I was "stalking." I guess they're pretty much used to people). This is a full sized adult. When fully grown, they're about 2.5 feet high at the shoulder, and weigh just 40-60 pounds (that's smaller than our poodle).
The speed limits on HWY 1 in the area are rigorously enforced, 45 mph during the day and 35 mph at night throughout the area. None-the-less, one sign we saw said that 117 deer died in car collisions last year. 8 have already died this year when we went by on 3/8/17. That's a huge portion of this endangered population, dying due to humans traveling in the Keys.
Another problem the deer face is loss of habitat due to development. They favor this slash pine forest, another ecosystem that relies on burns to maintain the community composition. That's a problem we also saw back at Tomoka State Park, in northern FL. Here's how the landscape looks in the Key Deer Refuge, where controlled burns are used to maintain the forest.
Part of the reserve was a place called Blue Hole, which was an old abandoned quarry, since filled with rain and ground water.
There's an interesting story that during the flooding due to Hurricane Wilma in 2005, Tarpon (a saltwater ocean fish) swam into the small lake from the ocean. When sea levels decreased again after the hurricane, the Tarpon were trapped in Blue Hole. As time went by, fresh water from the rain filled the lake from the top, diluting the salt water, and this small population of Tarpon have slowly become acclimatized to the fresh water. Apparently, they are surviving, but not thriving, and they are not growing to as large a size as their saltwater brothern. This one is at least 12 years old, and is about 30" long.
Another significant challenge the deer face is "Screw Worm," but that's interesting enough to cover in a whole other post.