U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Document Type


Date of this Version

December 2003


Published by Wildlife Society Bulletin 2003, 31(3): 684-691.


A better understanding of the color vision abilities of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) helps to determine how these animals interpret their environment. We review and summarize the literature related to the color vision abilities of white-tailed deer. Physiological measurements using advanced techniques such as molecular genetics, electroretinography, and electron microscopy have demonstrated conclusively that whitetailed deer possess the anatomical requisites for color vision. Operant conditioning techniques employed in pen studies using trained cervids confirm that deer see color. The eyes of white-tailed deer are characterized by 3 classes of photopigments: a short-wavelengthsensitive cone mechanism, a middle-wavelength-sensitive cone mechanism, and a short wavelength- sensitive rod pigment. The number and distribution of rod, and cones in the retina, augmented by adaptations of the eye, give white-tailed deer high visual sensitivity and visual acuity in light and darkness. During the day deer discriminate colors in the range blue to yellow-green and can also distinguish longer (orange and red) wavelengths. At night deer see color in the blue to blue-green range, although the moderately wide spectral sensitivity of rods permits some discrimination of longer wavelengths. Rods serve a discriminatory role in color vision, especially at low to moderate illumination levels. Benefits of color vision to deer include the ability to discriminate between plant species and parts and enhanced predator-detection capabilities. This information can be used to define methods of resolving deer-human conflicts and provide insight to deer researchers, photographers, and hunters on how to he more inconspicuous to their subject.