Hardy survivors since the Ice Age, the lives of these tough little Floridians are in peril because of us . . .

By Dorothy Francis

Thousands of years ago during the Ice Age, the Keys formed a solid landmass until the Wisconsin Glacier melted. The rising water covered much of the land. The Keys are the highest points of land that remained after the glacier melted. The rest of the land now lies under water. Scientists think the deer were trapped here and that they had two choices--make do or die. The deer chose to make do.

Historians found the first record of Key deer in a ship's logbook during Columbus's fourth voyage to the New World. Fifty years after that, a sailor shipwrecked in the Keys wrote about the deer in his diary, telling that the natives used the deer for food. Another 300 years passed before pioneers settled in the Keys and gave them picturesque names such as Little Torch, Big Torch, Sugarloaf, Big Pine, Boca Chica. Those pioneers thought the islands offered an unlimited supply of game, but the deer soon became scarce and they grew smaller.

It takes a lot of water to make things grow. Big Pine Key is different from the other Keys. It offers one of the few sources of fresh water in the islands. Oolite, a form of limestone, forms the land on Big Pine Key, and it's full of sinkholes. Although the sinkholes hold fresh rainwater, there's very little of it available. Scientists believe that the shortage of water holds the deer to a small size. Also, they know that many species of animals grow smaller in warm climates. The deer in the Keys don't need

photo by Philip A, Frank, PhD