On first glance it can be easy to mistake a deer for a gazelle and vice versa. There are many small deer species throughout the world that resemble the petite frame and tan color of some gazelle species. Despite their similar appearance, the deer and gazelle are from different families in the animal classification system and have several distinguishing characteristics.
Deer and gazelles are both ungulates, or animals with hooves, and both belong to the Cetartiodactyla order of animals that have an even number of hooves, including giraffes, pigs and camels. Deer belong to the cervidae family while the gazelle belongs to the bovidae family and the sub-family antilopinae, which also includes smaller antelopes. Both deer and gazelles have a variety of different species within the family.
Antlers vs. Horns
Antlers are the defining characteristics of deer and grown almost exclusively by male deer. Antlers are protruding bones that grow in branch-like patterns on the top of the head. Deer use their antlers to clear brush while foraging and to fight each other during mating season. Deer are the only ungulates that have antlers. Many species of deer shed their antlers, sometimes yearly, and grow new ones. Gazelles also have protruding bones from the skull but they are fundamentally different in structure from antlers and are called horns. Horns are attached to the skull and grow throughout a gazelle's life. They are a bone structure surrounded by a keratin cover much like human nails. Gazelles use their horns in mating season and territorial battles.
Most species of deer are shades of reddish brown, brown and tan. Some deer species have white markings and spots used for camouflage in dense forested areas. Gazelles are similar in color but many species have striking black and white patterns along with their tan and reddish brown coats. The most distinguishable color difference is the white or black stripes that run from the eye to the nose seen in many gazelle species. Gazelles in the African savanna often have black stripes on both sides to confuse predators when they run away.
Deer are very adaptable and are found in most parts of the world in varying climates and ecosystems. The many species of deer live in diverse habitats from forested areas to frozen tundras and tropical rainforests. Deer have inhabited almost every continent except Australia, where they are not a native species, and Africa. Only one species of deer, the red deer, is found in Africa, where it has a limited range in the Atlas mountain between Tunisia and Morocco. Gazelles on the other hand are only found on two continents, Africa and parts of Asia. The many species of gazelle occupy both the grassy plains and savannas of southern Africa and the desert regions of eastern and North Africa and have adapted to most climates on the continent. In Asia, gazelles can be found from the arid regions in China down to the Arabian peninsula.