Meet the chevrotain, the small and secretive mouse deer

November 12, 2019, 11:18 a.m.
Chevrotain, also called a mouse deer, in woodland
Photo: Independent birds/Shutterstock

The mouse deer. Or the pig deer. Or the little goat. Whatever you call the chevrotain, this is a truly distinct (and tiny!) ungulate. With a round, bunny-like body placed atop piglet-like feet, and a face akin to a mouse, the chevrotain may look like a hodgepodge of modern-day species but it's actually quite ancient.

The family to which chevrotains belong dates back 34 million years, and hasn’t changed much; the animals continue to thrive in their forested habitats. Ten species still survive today in south and southeast Asia, and central and west Africa — and all of them are amazingly small.

The smallest is the lesser Malay (shown here) which only weighs about four pounds. Meanwhile the largest, the water chevrotain, weighs in at 33 pounds — which still isn’t exactly large.

They may be small but they've got gumption. And attitude...

Chevrotain in woodland A chevrotain in its woodland habitat. (Photo: assoonas/Shutterstock)

They also have fangs. While they lack the horns or antlers of so many other ungulate species, they do sport long tusk-like incisors. These are especially long in males, which use them in fighting.

Their small size makes them a target for predators, and a few species — such as the water chevrotain — have developed impressive aquatic skills to stay out of harm's way. When danger is near, the tiny animal leaps in the water and can stay submerged for up to four minutes while walking along the bottom of the stream or river to escape.

Check out this chevrotain using the strategy to escape from an eagle:

So, is the proper name for these little creatures chevrotain or mouse deer? Apparently it depends on the species. According to Encyclopedia of Life, "The names chevrotain and mouse-deer have been used interchangeably among the Asian species, though recent authorities typically have preferred chevrotain for the species in the genus Moschiola and mouse-deer for the species in the genus Tragulus. Consequently, all species with pale-spotted or -striped upper parts are known as chevrotains, and all the species without are known as mouse-deer."

So if you're ever unsure which label to use, check the coat pattern for a clue.

A species rediscovered

There are 10 known species of chevrotains in the world, but the silver-backed mouse-deer, Tragulus versicolor, is one of the most elusive. The last recorded sighting of this creature was in 1990, and it was thought to be extinct, but a small group has been rediscovered in southern Vietnam, as you can see in the camera trap footage above.

The discovery, made by the Global Wildlife Conservation and partners Southern Institute of Ecology and Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, was announced in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

"For so long, this species has seemingly only existed as part of our imagination. Discovering that it is, indeed, still out there, is the first step in ensuring we don't lose it again, and we're moving quickly now to figure out how best to protect it," An Nguyen, associate conservation scientist for GWC and expedition team leader, told ScienceDaily.

The team's next steps will be to use more camera traps to determine how large and stable the group is, and to establish protections for them.

In this age of mass extinctions, it's heartening to learn about any animal bought back from the brink.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was published in April 2018.