Chital (Axis axis) are native to India, southern Nepal, southern Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. They have been introduced and established in Europe (Croatia, Ukraine, Moldova), Armenia, the Andaman Islands, New Guinea, Australia, the United States (California, Texas, and Hawaii), Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina.
These medium-sized deer are heavily spotted year-round. Chital head and body length is around 150 to 155 cm for males (bucks) and 140 to 145 cm for females (does). Tail length is around 25 to 30 cm. Shoulder height is around 85 to 95 cm for bucks and 70 to 80 cm for does. Adult bucks are 70 to 85 kg (up to 110 kg) and adult does are 45 to 60 kg (up to 70 kg). Males have a dark chevron over the face and an elongated penis sheath. Adult males have long three-tined antlers.
Chital prefer moist and dry forest areas adjacent to scrubland or grassland, but are also found in swampy meadows close to forests, in riparian forests, and in teak plantations. They eat mainly grasses, but also forbs, leaves, flowers, and fruits. In the Sundarbans mangrove forest (Bangladesh) they are know to feed on crabs as well.
In their native range, Chital tend to use more wooded habitats during the cool-dry season and early summer (November to May), where they find browse and fruit, and use more open grasslands when the monsoon rains bring a flush of plant growth.
Female Chital reach sexual maturity at around a year, males several months later. Mating may occur throughout the year, with a higher frequency from March to July. After a gestation period of around 231 to 235 days, a single fawn is born. Weaning occurs at 5 to 6 months. The maximum known age in captivity is 21 years. The major predators of Chital in their native range are Tigers (Panthera tigris), Leopards (Panthera pardus), and Dholes (Cuon alpinus).
Chital are mainly active around dawn and dusk, with two main resting periods, one before dawn and the other at midday. Males have home ranges of around 200 to 350 ha, females around 150 to 250 ha. The basic social unit is the family group, consisting of a mother, her fawn, and the offspring of the previous year. Two or three families may form temporary, fluid herds of 6 to 12 animals, often accompanied by subadult males and visted by adult bucks. In some situations, where there is a concentration of food or water, aggregations of 150 to 200 individuals can occur.
Chital populations appear to be secure.
(Mattioli 2011 and references therein)
- Mattioli, S. 2011. Family Cervidae. Pp. 350-443 in: Wilson, D.E. and Mittermeier, R.A., eds. Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Volume 2. Hoofed Mammals. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
The axis deer occurs historically in India and Ceylon. They have been introduced to Texas and Hawaii.
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Introduced ); oriental (Native )
Chital have been introduced to the Andaman Islands (India, during 1925–1930; Banerji 1955), Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Brazil, Croatia (islands of Brijuni; Mitchell-Jones et al. 1999), Moldova, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Ukraine, Uruguay, and the USA (California, Florida, Hawaiian Islands, and Texas) (Grubb 2005; Raman in press). These introduced populations have not been mapped. Not all introductions have succeeded: for example, some were introduced to west-central Slovenia (from the Brijuni islands) in the late 1940s or in 1950, but this introduction failed and is now therefore frequently reported as having been of Fallow Deer Dama dama. One male, shot on 12 October 1950 and now in the Natural History Museum of Slovenia, proves the identification (Krystufek 1999). Managed herds occur in parks throughout the native and introduced range and in many other areas.
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: Native range: India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Introduced in Hawaii (principally on Lanai and Molokai; one remnant population on Oahu; introduced on Maui in 1959-1960) (Tomich 1986), Texas, and Florida (Grubb, in Wilson and Reeder 2005).
The Axis deer stands 0.6 to 1 m tall at the shoulder and has a body length of about 1.5 m (Walker, 1964). The body color is reddish with white on the belly, inner legs, and underneath their short tail. The males tend to be darker and to have black facial markings. They also have antlers composed of three tines which can reach lengths of almost a meter. Characteristic white spots occur in both sexes and run longitudinally in rows throughout the duration of the animal's life (Ables,1977). A dark dorsal stripe runs the length of the animal's back.
Range mass: 27 to 45 kg.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes colored or patterned differently; ornamentation
- Albes, E. 1977. The Axis deer in Texas. Texas Agricultural Experimental Station, Texas A&M University.: Caesar Kleberg Research Program in Wildllife Ecology and Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences.
- Walker, E. 1964. Mammals of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
In their native lands, the deer occupy grasslands and very rarely move into areas of dense jungle that may occur adjacent to them. Short grasslands are an important area for them due to a lack of cover for predators such as the tiger (Moe and Wegge, 1994). Riverine forests within the Bardia National Park in lowland Nepal are highly utilized by the deer for shade and cover during the dry season. The forest also provides good foraging with regard to fallen fruit and leaves that are high in nutrients needed by the deer. Therefore, the deer require open areas as well as forested areas within their home ranges for optimum habitat. Their total range incorporates a core area of about 32 hectares(ha) surrounded by foraging and cover areas of about 140 ha for females and 195 ha for males (Moe and Wegge, 1994). Some variation in range size occurs depending on the season as well as the sex.
Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland
Other Habitat Features: riparian
Habitat and Ecology
Habitat use varies seasonally, reflecting food availability. Chital uses more wooded habitat during the cool-dry season and early summer (November to May), where fallen fruit, leaf litter, and browse are available. In open grassland and tropical dry thorn forest, Chital density increases with the onset of monsoon rains and flush of plant growth (Mishra 1982; Moe and Wegge 1994; Khan 1996; Raman et al. 1996). In areas of their distribution with a mosaic of forest and grassland habitats, seasonal patterns in habitat use may be complex. In the Himalayan terai, Chital use of habitats with high grass availability increased substantially in the weeks following cutting and burning of grasses in January–February, attributed to fresh flush of grass growth after the burns and with the onset pre-monsoon and monsoon rains nearly two months later (Mishra 1982; Moe and Wegge 1994, 1997). Similar behaviour has been reported from the grasslands of Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Johnsingh 1983).
Chital easily habituates to human presence, and herds often congregate in open areas near habitation or forest camps to spend the night, possibly due to greater safety from predators that shy away from these areas (Raman in press).
Chital eats a wide variety of plants: about 160–190 have been recorded from across the species' range. It is predominantly a grazer but consumes more fallen leaves, flowers and fruits in winter/dry season (Sankar 1994; Sankar and Acharya 2004; Raman in press). In addition to plant soft matter, crabs (in the Sunderbans; Stanford 1951), mushrooms (in Nepal; Moe and Wegge 1994), and rarely, bark (Raman et al. 1996) are eaten. Close to human habitation, rubbish and even human faeces are occasionally taken (Raman et al. 1996). Antler and bone chewing is also common. In Wilpattu, Sri Lanka, all age and sex classes are osteophagous, but such feeding was more common in velvet-antlered males, doubtless reflecting mineral needs during antler growth and mineralisation (Barrette 1985). Chital usually drinks water once a day, more frequently in summer. This restricts them to forest tracts with assured presence of water, even if only widely scattered.
In lowland Nepal, an individual’s total range incorporates a core area of about 32 hectares surrounded by foraging and cover areas of about 140 ha for females and 195 ha for males (Moe and Wegge 1994). Variation in range size occurs with site, season, sex and age of the animal. The basic social unit is a matriarchal family group, normally consisting of an adult female, her offspring from the previous year, and a fawn (Ables 1974). The usual herd is composed of two or more such family units and is often accompanied by individual deer of mixed sex and age-classes. Chital exhibits a fission-fusion system, or fluid group formation and dissolution (Schaller 1967; Mishra 1982; Barette 1991). Group composition changes frequently during feeding periods, during the rut when males frequently join groups of females (Schaller 1967), and while fleeing from predators (Dinerstein 1980). These social groupings of Chital do not remain permanent (Schaller 1967; Eisenberg and Lockhart 1972). Groups may number up to 150 or more individuals (De and Spillit 1966; Schaller 1967; Eisenberg and Lockhart 1972; Krishnan 1972; Fuchs 1977; Karanth and Sunquist 1992), sometimes even more: N.S. Kumar (pers. comm. 2008) counted 211 in one group during rainy season in Nagarahole and 203 in one group at Pench-Maharashtra near a water reservoir in summer. Measured sex ratios have all been biased towards females (Sankar and Acharya 2004 and references therein). Pariwakam (2006) observed nearly 10,500 Chital in Bandipur and estimated the proportion of Chital in different age and sex classes as stags 27%, does 57% and fawns 16%. In neighbouring Nagarahole, age-sex categories of Chital were adult stags 26%, adult does 36%, yearling males 8%, yearling females 9% and young 21% (Karanth and Sunquist 1992). Breeding can occur at any time of year but there is some peaking at any given locality (Sankar and Acharya 2004 and references therein). Heavy mortality of fawns in early weeks has been observed by several workers and fawn survival appears to be a key determinant of Chital population growth (Schaller 1967). Schaller (1967) estimated an annual fawn mortality of 48% in Kanha, Sharathchandra and Gadgil (1975) estimated a constant monthly mortality of 26% over first nine months in Bandipur, Raman (1996) estimated a mean monthly mortality of 9.7% in Guindy. Pariwakam (2006) for the first time used a rigorous photographic capture-recapture approach to estimate the fawn mortality rate, and found it to be 66% over a 6-week study period in Bandipur. Further information on sociality and breeding is synthesised by Sankar and Acharya (2004) and by Raman (in press).
Chital is a prolific breeder, as documented by several empirical studies of the speed of increase by newly introduced populations or in those where a factor restraining populations was removed (Raman in press and references therein). In Bhadra, following the departure from the park of human settlements and consequent removal of anthropogenic pressures on Chital and habitats, Chital populations bounced back by nearly seven times in fewer than four years (K.U. Karanth and N.S. Kumar unpublished data). Karanth et al. (1999) earlier documented their empirical observations of the recovery of Chital populations in Nagarahole. This and its diverse diet and habitats allow high density where threats are controlled. It is even considered to be a pest in the Andamans (Banerji 1955).
The main causes of death are predation, diseases, and accidents. Occasionally, stags kill each other when fighting (Sankar and Acharya 2004 and references therein). Predation is by far the major cause of Chital mortality. Older Chital stags are more susceptible to it than are younger stags (Johnsingh 1983; Patel 1992; Karanth and Sunquist 1995). This may be due to their being less vigilant during rut, to their separation from the group after the rut, or to weakening from injuries from conflicts. In Kanha, Chital remains were found in about 52% of Tiger faeces and 59% of Leopard Panthera pardus faeces analysed (Schaller 1967). In Bandipur, Chital is the most important prey in terms of the biomass taken by Dhole (78%), Leopard (55%) and Tiger (19%) (Andheria et al. 2007). Even in terms of the relative number of individuals taken, Chital is the predominant prey among the three large sympatric predators (Tigers about 33%, Leopards about 39% and Dholes about 73% in Bandipur; Andheria et al. 2007). In adjoining Nagarahole remains were found in about 31% of Tiger faeces, 44% of Leopard faeces, and 50% of Dhole faeces (Karanth and Sunquist 1995). In Sariska, around 54% of the faeces of Tiger and 21% of Leopard faeces contained Chital remains (Sankar 1994). Chital remains were found in about 53% of Tiger faeces in Pench (Biswas and Sankar 2002) and 61% of Tiger faeces in Ranthambore (Bagchi et al. 2003).
Each Chital spends a major portion of its life in foraging, resting, and wandering within its range, with the relative extent of these activities determined by season (Schaller 1967). In a day, peak feeding times are around dawn and dusk. There are usually two major resting periods, before dawn and mid-day (Sankar and Acharya 2004).
Considerable further detail on ecology, drawn from the relative wealth of studies on the species, with each item precisely referenced to source, is provided by Raman (in press).
Comments: In Hawaii, usually in or near cover during daylight hours. May be dependent on water holes during dry season.
Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
The main foods utilized by these deer are grasses as well as flowers and fruits which fall from the forest trees. They will occasionally browse when it is necessary. During the monsoon season, grass and sedge species in a sal forest are an important food source. Another source of nutrition may come from mushrooms which are high in proteins and nutrients and are also found in sal forests (Moe and Wegge, 1994).
Plant Foods: leaves; wood, bark, or stems; fruit
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore )
- Moe, S., P. Wegge. 1994. Spacing behavior and habitat use of Axis deer (Axis axis) in lowland Nepal. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 72(10): 1735-1743.
Comments: Eats grass, leaves of broadleaf plants, seed pods; browses on woody plants.
Life History and Behavior
Axis deer have several vocalizations besides the bellowing that occurs during the mating season. They have a bark that is used during times of alarm or when an unusual object has been observed. This usually occurs among females and juveniles and is repeated back and forth. Another kind is squealing which is used by fawns when they get separated from their mothers. Moaning is associated with males during aggressive displays or when resting (Ables, 1977).
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Status: captivity: 15.0 years.
Status: captivity: 20.8 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Males tend to bellow during the mating season which may be a good indicator of when breeding begins.
Axis deer breed in April or May and have a gestation of about 7.5 months. They usually have two fawns but one or three is not uncommon(Walker, 1964). The number of fawns produced as well as the mating season may vary for deer in captivity; only one fawn is usually produced and mating may take place from May to August (Ables, 1977). First pregnancies usually occur between the ages of 14 to 17 months. The female usually maintains nursing until the fawn can safely roam with the herd (Walker, 1964).
Breeding interval: Axis deer breed once yearly.
Breeding season: Breeding occurs in April and May.
Range number of offspring: 1 to 3.
Average gestation period: 7.5 months.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 14 to 17 months.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); viviparous
Average birth mass: 3144 g.
Average gestation period: 226 days.
Average number of offspring: 1.03.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 913 days.
- Walker, E. 1964. Mammals of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
Reproductively active nearly year-round in Texas (Howery et al. 1989) and Hawaii (Kramer 1971). Breeding peaks in spring-summer in Hawaii. Gestation lasts about 229 days. In Hawaii, litter size usually is 1 and most females are sexually mature in their first year.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Axis axis
Below is the sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen.
Other sequences that do not yet meet barcode criteria may also be available.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Axis axis
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
The axis deer has been introduced into Texas and Hawaii with good results. They do very well in captivity and can be seen at Zoos in the United States. Most are on private lands in the U.S., however, some are free-ranging.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNA - Not Applicable
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure
The reported ecological densities of Chital mostly fall within 3–50 animals per km² in India: Bhadra Tiger Reserve, 4.51 +/- 1.05 (SE) per km² (Jathanna et al. 2003); Madhya Pradesh Pench National Park dry deciduous forest, 51.3 animals per km² (Karanth and Nichols 2000); Kanha moist deciduous forest, 49.7 animals per km² (Karanth and Nichols 2000); Nagarahole moist deciduous forest, 50.6 animals per km² (Karanth and Sunquist 1992); Bandipur dry deciduous forest, 20.1 animals per km² (Karanth and Nichols 2000); Tadoba-Andhari dry deciduous forest, 3.2 animals per km² (Karanth and Kumar 2005); Maharashtra Pench dry deciduous forest, 5.8 animals per km² (Karanth and Kumar 2005); Ranthambore semi-arid dry deciduous forest, 38.4 animals per km² (Kumar 2000); and Gir semi-arid dry deciduous forest, 50.8 animals per km² (Khan et al. 1996). Some parts of the well-protected areas in Nagarahole and Bandipur are known to harbour densities as high as 80–100 Chital per km² (N.S. Kumar pers. comm. 2008). The highest population densities, of around 200 Chitals per km², are reported for the Bardia National Park, Nepal (Naess and Andersen 1993; Moe and Wegge 1994) and for the reintroduced population in Guindy National Park, southern India (Menon 1982; Raman et al. 1996). These high densities reflect habitat and food availability in the former area (Moe and Wegge 1994), and supplementary feeding and low predation in the latter (Raman et al. 1996). Population densities in marginal habitats tend to be lower (Raman in press; K.U. Karanth and N.S. Kumar unpublished data). Chital is the most abundant ungulate in Nagarahole, and reaches higher densities in moist than in dry deciduous forests (Karanth and Sunquist 1992). The recorded Bhadra density is low, reflecting poaching and livestock grazing (Jathanna et al. 2003), and the population density is steadily increasing following removal of these pressures in 2003 (K.U. Karanth and N.S. Kumar unpublished data). A study at Nagarahole National Park compared an area which was only moderately hunted with a heavily hunted site. This found respective densities of 65 and 10 Chitals per km² (Madhusudan and Karanth 2002).
The only population in Europe is on the islands of Brijuni (off Istria, Croatia), but B. Krystufek (pers. comm. 2008) has traced no information on its current status. Information has not been sought for this account on introduced populations elsewhere, because they do not contribute to assessing the species’ Red List status.
The most serious threat, in areas where poaching and habitat conversion are well controlled, is the reduction in carrying capacity through competition with livestock, especially during the pinch season as observed in Sariska (Sankar 1994); Chital and livestock are known to have dietary overlap (Raman in press). The problem has been documented almost throughout Chital’s range but awareness that it is a problem at all remains so low that it is not even recognised as a key conservation issue in many protected areas (e.g. Mathai 1999). In Gir Lion Sanctuary and National Park, Chital population density increased 14-fold from 3.57 animals per km² in 1970–1971 (Berwick 1974) to 50.8 animals per km² in 1989 (Khan 1996; Khan et al. 1996). This was attributed to the rapid and complete removal of pastoral settlements, their livestock, and a total ban on several thousand migratory livestock. Dung densities of Chital and livestock were also negatively correlated in Gir, indicating avoidance and possible competitive interaction between the species. With removal of human impact and increase in forage availability, Chital population increased, as testified by higher Chital densities in the vicinity of abandoned settlements (nesses; Sharma and Johnsingh 1995). Similarly, in Bardia National Park (Nepal), protection from livestock grazing (and logging) in 1975 increased measured Chital populations from 30–34 per km² in 1977 (Dinerstein 1980) to over 200 per km² in the early 1990s (Naess and Andersen 1993; Moe and Wegge 1994). In Bandipur Tiger Reserve, mean densities of Chital were 11 times higher in livestock-free areas than in adjacent livestock-grazed areas. In shared grazing areas, these Chital densities declined sharply with increasing livestock densities. In the studied grazed area, halving the livestock density allowed an increase in Chital density by a factor of five (Madhusudan 2004). Threats to southern India’s forest ungulates by competition with domestic stock grazing within protected areas are exacerbated where dung is collected for export to adjacent coffee areas. Fuel wood removal may also be at levels sufficient to disrupt nutrient cycles of the habitat (Madhusudan 2005). All these pressures interact to have, overall, a major depression of Chital densities. In Bhadra, following the departure from the park of human settlements and consequent removal of anthropogenic pressures on Chital and habitats, Chital populations bounced back by nearly seven times in fewer than four years (Karanth and Kumar unpublished data). Karanth et al. (1999) earlier documented their empirical observations of the recovery of Chital populations in Nagarahole.
Chital are susceptible to livestock-borne diseases such as rinderpest (Schaller 1967) and foot-and-mouth disease (Sankar 1994) but the current population is too widespread for these to rank as potential global-level threats. Accidents, especially from speeding vehicles, are a cause of Chital mortality but occur rarely within protected areas and cannot be significant at the global level. Many Indian forest areas are severely encroached by exotics such as Lantana camara, Parthenium spp. and Chromolaena odorata (= Eupatorium odoratum), and these are suspected to effect major changes to forest structure (Hiremath and Sundaram 2005): but their effects on Chital populations warrant further study. Wild-ranging domestic dogs are also likely to be a problem (Raman in press), but no study quantifying their effects has been traced. There are no predictable threats to the Sundarbans population of Bangladesh, but as a low-lying area extreme weather events might cause episodic major population removal, as happened with hurricane Sidr in November 2007 (Md Anwarul Islam in litt. 2008).
Chital populations have been studied in: Corbett (De and Spillit 1966), Kanha (Schaller 1967), Bandipur (Johnsingh 1983), Nagarahole (Karanth and Sunquist 1992), Sariska (Sankar 1994), Gir (Khan et al. 1995, 1996), Guindy (Raman 1996, Raman et al. 1996), Pench (Biswas and Sankar 2002), Ranthambore (Bagchi et al. 2003) in India, Chitwan (Seidensticker 1976; Mishra 1982) and Karnali-Bardia (Dinerstein 1980; Moe and Wegge 1994, 1997) in Nepal, and Wilpattu (Eisenberg and Lockhart 1972) in Sri Lanka.
Management Requirements: See Tomich (1986) for review of legal battle over proposed introduction onto island of Hawaii.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Axis deer have become an important resource for hunting in the United States.
Comments: Hunted in Hawaii (mainly Lanai) (Tomich 1986).
The chital or cheetal (Axis axis), also known as chital deer, spotted deer or axis deer, is a deer which commonly inhabits wooded regions of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and in small numbers in Pakistan. The chital goes by various names in India, among which include: chital horin in Bengali, thith muwa in Sinhalese, jinke in Kannada, pulli maan in Tamil and Malayalam, jinka in Telugu, phutuki horin in Assamese, haran/harin in Marathi, and hiran in Hindi/Urdu (the latter two derived from harini, the Sanskrit cognate for 'deer'). It is the most common deer species in Indian forests. The name chital comes from the Bengali word chitral (চিত্রল)/chitra (চিত্রা), which means "spotted". The chital is monotypic within the genus Axis, but this genus has also included three species that now are placed in Hyelaphus based on genetic evidence.
The chital's coat is pinkish fawn, marked with white spots, and its underparts are also white. Its antlers, which it sheds annually, are usually three-pronged and curve in a lyre shape and may extend to 75 cm (2.5 ft). Compared to the hog deer, its close relative, the chital has a more cursorial build. It also has a more advanced morphology with antler pedicles being proportionally short and its auditory bullae being smaller. It also has large nares. The male chital averages about 90 cm (35 in) tall at the shoulder, with a total length of 170 cm (67 in), including a 20 cm (7.9 in). Males, at a typical weight of 30 to 75 kg (66 to 165 lb), are somewhat larger than females, at 25 to 45 kg (55 to 99 lb). Exceptionally large males can weigh up to 98 to 110 kg (216 to 243 lb). Their lifespans are around 8–14 years.
Chital have well-developed preorbital glands which have hairs that are like stiff little branches. They also have well-developed metatarsal glands and pedal glands on their hind legs. Males have larger preorbital glands than females and are opened very often in response to certain stimuli.
The chital ranges over 8–30ºN in India and through Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The western limit of its range is eastern Rajasthan and Gujarat. The northern limit is along the Bhabar-terai belt of the foothills of the Himalaya and from Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal through to Nepal, northern West Bengal and Sikkim and then to western Assam and the forested valleys of Bhutan which are below 1,100 m asl. The eastern limit of its range is through western Assam to the Sunderbans of West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh. Sri Lanka is the southern limit. Chital occur sporadically in the forested areas throughout the rest of the Indian peninsula. However, it currently occurs only in the Sundarbans in Bangladesh, as it became extinct in the central, north-east and south-east regions.
The chital was the first species of deer introduced into Australia in the early 1800s by Dr. John Harris, surgeon to the New South Wales Corps, and he had about 400 of these animals on his property by 1813. These did not survive and the primary range of the chital is now confined to a few cattle stations in North Queensland near Charters Towers and several feral herds on the NSW north coast. While some of the stock originated from Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the Indian race likely is also represented.
The United States
In the 1860s, axis deer were introduced to the island of Molokai, Hawaii, as a gift from Hong Kong to King Kamehameha V. Today, the deer are plentiful on Lanai, another of the Hawaiian Islands. The paniolos (cowboys) were instructed to lasso the deer from Molokai and to bring them for shipping to Lanai. Hawaii wildlife officials believe people have flown the deer by helicopter and transported them by boat onto the island. In August 2012, a helicopter pilot pleaded guilty to transporting four axis deer from Maui to the Big Island.
The deer were introduced to Maui island in the 1950s as part of a post-World War II veteran hunting opportunity. Because the deer have no natural predators on the Hawaiian islands, their population is growing 20 to 30% each year. Hawaii law now prohibits "the intentional possession or interisland transportation or release of wild or feral deer."
In 1932, axis deer were introduced to Texas. In 1988, self-sustaining herds were found in 27 counties, located in central and southern Texas. The deer are most populated on the Edwards Plateau, where the land is similar to that of India.
The spotted deer is found in large numbers in dense deciduous or semievergreen forests and open grasslands. The highest numbers of chital are found in the forests of India, where they feed upon tall grass and shrubs. Chital have been also spotted in Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan, which is the only remaining natural sal (Shorea robusta) forests in the country. They do not occur at higher-elevation forests, where they are usually replaced by other species such as the Sambar deer. They also prefer heavy forest cover for shade and are intolerant of direct sunlight.
Chital are primarily grazers and feed on short, sprouting grasses. However, they will also browse, as well as eat forbs, fruit, and branches of trees, especially when they are thrown down by monkeys. Stags, more than hinds, will stand on their hind legs on feed on tree foliage. Chital also eat their shed antlers as a source of nutrients, and will use mineral licks. Chital prefer to be near water and will drink in mornings and evenings in hot weather. Predators of the chital include wolves, tigers, Asiatic lions (in Gir Forest only), leopards, Indian rock pythons, dholes, Indian pariah dogs, and mugger crocodiles. Red foxes and golden jackals also sometimes prey on chital fawns. Hinds and fawns are more likely to be victims of predation than adult stags, and dholes are more successful in catching stags than tigers and leopards. The chital can run up to 40 mph (65 km/h) to escape its predators.
An interesting relationship has been observed between herds of axis deer and troops of the Northern Plains gray langurs (Presbytis entellus), a widespread leaf-eating monkey taxon of South Asia. Axis deer apparently benefit from the langurs' good eyesight and ability to post a lookout in a treetop, helping to raise the alarm when a predator approaches. For the langurs' part, the axis deer's superior sense of smell would seem to assist in early predator warning, and it is common to see langurs foraging on the ground in the presence of axis deer. The axis deer also benefit from fruits dropped by the langurs from trees such as Terminalia bellerica and Phyllanthus emblica. Alarm calls of either species can be indicative of the presence of a predator such as a tiger.
Social behavior and reproduction
Axis deer most commonly occur in herds of 10 to 50 individuals of both sexes. Large dominant stags without velvet stay in the center of the herd and are surrounded by the females and their young. Smaller stags with velvet occupy the boundaries of the herd. Chital stags pay close attention when a stag of equal size to them enters their group. They will follow, graze with, and display to the newcomer. Sparring is more common between young stags, while older, larger stags prefer horning, pawing, and marking. Large stags with hard antlers are more likely to be well spaced out. Stags are known to stand on their hind legs and mark tree branches above.
The chital has a protracted breeding season due in part to the tropical climate, and births can occur throughout the year. For this reason, males do not have their antler cycles in synchrony and some females are fertile at all times of the year. Males sporting hard antlers are dominant over those in velvet or those without antlers, irrespective of their size and other factors. Stags commonly bellow during the rut. Chital hinds have three-week-long estrous cycles. Chital courtship is based on tending bonds. A stag will follow and guard a hind in estrus. During this time, the stag will not eat. The pair will do several bouts of chasing and mutual licking before copulation. Hinds birth one fawn, rarely two, at a time. Young fawns suckle longer than older fawns which suckle for 55 seconds. Hinds and fawns have loose bonds and it is common for them to get separated. However, because chital tend to stay close to each other, it is not difficult for a hind to find a fawn. Fawns sometimes gather in nurseries.
Chital are generally silent when grazing together. They do, though, make high-pitched chuckles when walking. When grazing, chital do a "courtesy posture" when they pass each other. The bellow of a chital stag exists in a primitive state of development compared to other deer like the red deer or elk. Its calls are one or several coarse bellows and loud growls, which may be weaker versions of the bellow. Bellowing coincides with rutting. Stags guarding estrous females will make high-pitched growls at lesser stags that hang about. Stags will also moan during aggressive displays or when resting. When alarmed, chital will bark. These barks usually occur among females and juveniles, and is repeated back and forth. Fawns separated from their mothers will squeal. When in danger, they run in groups. They will make bursts of high-speed running and then soon tire and dive into heavy cover to hide.
The chital is listed by the IUCN as Least Concern "because it occurs over a very wide range within which there are many large populations". Currently, no range-wide threats to chitals are present, and they live in many protected areas. However, population densities are below ecological carrying capacity in many places due to hunting and competition with domestic livestock. Hunting for the deer's meat has caused substantial declines and local extinctions. The axis deer is protected under Schedule III of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972) and under the Wildlife (Preservation) (Amendment) Act, 1974 of Bangladesh. Two primary reasons for its good conservation status are its legal protection as a species and a network of functioning protected areas.
The chital has been introduced to Andaman Islands, Australia, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco, California, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and Hawaii in the United States, and to the Veliki Brijun Island in the Brijuni Archipelago of the Istrian Peninsula in Croatia.
Spotted deer near Coimbatore
Chital deer at the Sasan-Gir National Park, India
Herd grazing while one (on left) keeps watch at Sudarnakhali, Sundarbans
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Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Formerly included in the genus Cervus. Placed in the genus Axis by Grubb (in Wilson and Reeder 1993, 2005) and Jones et al. (1997).
See Cronin (1991) for a phylogeny of the Cervidae based on mitochondrial-DNA data. See Kraus and Miyamoto (1991) for a phylogenetic analysis of pecoran ruminants (Cervidae, Bovidae, Moschidae, Antilocapridae, and Giraffidae) based on mitochondrial DNA data.