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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. D. Caton   2 [October] 18681

Ottawa Ills.

Dec. 2. 1868

Prof. Charles Darwin.

Dear Sir.

Your very kind note of the 18th ult. is this moment received.2 It is gratifying to find a naturalist who thinks so much detail not tedious, and especially to receive such marked communication from so distinguished a source.

I am still continuing my observations on the deer family, and since my paper was written have observed some new facts, to me quite as interesting as any there stated.3 First, allow me to mention, that two weeks ago, after the red coat had been entirely replaced by the blue, upon two specimens of the Virginia deer, one a castrated buck and the other a fawn doe, I observed a line of spots on either side of the back.4 On the doe each spot is clearly distinguishable from near the root of the tail to the shoulder blade, at which the two rows are four inches apart. As they run back they gradually approach each other till at the tail they are two and a half inches apart. The spots are twenty one on each side about 58 ths. inch in diameter and about one inch and a quarter apart from outside to outside.5

The blue coat in each is now not over half an inch long, very fine and soft, and about the darkest in color of any in the park. The spots are a yellowish shade and so distinct that they may be distinguished fifty feet away. The forward ones are most distinct and they fade perceptibly, as they proceed back. Those upon the male, whose ground coat is considerably the darkest, the spots fade away, so that but one or two are clearly distinguishable at the hip joint. The fact that they are the least distinguishable on the darkest ground I have considered interesting for in other specimens of decidedly lighter shades than these I have not yet observed the spots. All of the spots on both specimens are nearly of the same size and distance apart in the rows.

Before I made these observations the young fawns had shed too much of their spotted coats to enable me to critically compare the upper lines of spots on the fawns with those observed in these adults, which are now four years old.6 I have about ten deer that are tame enough to allow me so near as to observe the spots, so that of these twenty percent are spotted. These spots are not a freak of nature like the gray elk but have their origin in ancestry. I shall watch with care to see how long these spots remain visible. I expect as the hair grows longer they will disappear. Should they continue till cold weather, when the wild deer come up for corn, I shall look for spots on them.

I remember in former years to have observed these spots on some specimens, but I did not bestow the attention upon it which I ought. I shall look with interest to see if these spots reappear in the same specimens.

I have some new observations of the horns but will not trouble you with them.

Yours very truly | J D Caton

P.S. Since writing the foregoing, I have taken a walk through my grounds with Hon. B. C. Cook M.C.7 for the purpose of repeating the foregoing observations and have to correct one statement.

The castrated buck on which I had observed the spots, was not the black tailed deer of which I have spoken in my paper, but in one of a lighter color and the largest variety.8 But to day I find the spots developed on the black tail deer, but much fainter than on either of the other specimens, but still they can be counted from the shoulder to the hip, sixteen on a side. I also observed on a doe that has raised a fawn this summer and has not shed all of her red coat two rows of spots in the same positions as the others but differing in this: these spots are of the old red coat which still remains, while all around them, the red is gone and is replaced by the blue.9 The red had not gone quite back to the hips so as to allow me to distinguish the spots all the the way, but to continue those discernible through the red, with the same spaces, there would be sixteen (16) as in the others. That these tufts of the red coat are connected with the phenomena I have described I cannot doubt, but I was still surprised to observe, that in place of one of the spots where the red tuft had disappeared, I could find no spot of a lighter shade than the surrounding blue coat. This was the only specimen on which I was able to trace a line of red tufts, although several were at hand, with about the same amount of red coat remaining. Here are forty percent of the deer carefully examined showing the spots.

I find the wild turkey does not breed the season it is one year old, as the domestic turkeys invariably do. I have a pair raised from the eggs of the wild turkey found in the woods last year. The cock is the most beautiful and magnificent bird I ever saw. I hope to be able to make some valuable observations.10

In my flock of bronze turkeys which have always hitherto bred remarkably true, I have this year three exceptions in a brood of thirteen. It is not a reversion to the wild parent, but is further from it than their immediate parents.11

Pardon my long stories. | JDC

CD annotations

0.2 Dec.] del; ‘Oct’ added blue crayon
1.1 Your … stated. 2.2] crossed blue crayon
2.3 First, … of the back. 2.5] ‘Young of No Antelopes spotted or striped when adult not striped’ added pencil
2.5 fawn] ‘fawn’ added blue crayon
9.16 Here are … spots. 9.17] scored red crayon
10.1 I find … observations. 10.4] scored blue crayon
11.1 In my … parents. 11.3] scored twice blue crayon, once red crayon
Top of letter: ‘When the Red & Blue summer & winter coats are changed, spots appear as in the young.—showing that the spots are latent all life long.—’12 ink; ‘Spots.’ added red crayon, enclosed in square brackets
End of 1st PS: ‘See Knowsley for spotted Deer Hyelaphus’13 pencil
End of 2d. PS: ‘Honble Judge Caton of Illinois U. States’ blue crayon


Caton evidently dated his letter ‘December’ in error. See n. 2, below.
See letter to J. D. Caton, 18 September 1868.
Caton refers to Caton 1868, which was also published in Caton 1880, pp. 146–75; see letter to J. D. Caton, 18 September 1868 and n. 1.
The ‘Virginia’ deer (now the white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus) has a reddish coat in the summer and a grey or grey–brown coat in winter (Whitehead 1993, p. 241).
Caton described these and later observations on the winter coat of the white-tailed deer in Caton 1877a, pp. 156–7; he mentioned that these spots had not been noticed in a publication until CD referred to Caton’s observations in Descent 2: 303–4. See also letter from J. D. Caton, 17 November 1870 (Calendar no. 7375).
Caton later made the comparison; see Caton 1877a, p. 157. See also letter from J. D. Caton, 17 November 1870 (Calendar no. 7375).
Burton C. Cook was a member of the United States Congress (National cyclopædia of American biography 13: 592).
In his paper ‘American Cervus’, Caton described three varieties of what are now called white-tailed deer, one of which was darker in colour and had a black tail; another was lighter in colour with longer legs (see Caton 1880, pp. 147–8).
See Caton 1877a, p. 157.
Caton described his domestication of wild turkeys in Caton 1877b, and included his observation of the first pair’s disinclination to breed when a year old (see pp. 321–2); Caton 1877b was reprinted in Caton 1880, pp.176–88. CD added Caton’s observation to the second edition of Variation 2: 91.
CD discussed the origin and variation of domesticated turkeys in Variation 1: 292–4.
In Descent 2: 303–4, CD included these, and later, observations of Caton’s on deer spots in his discussion of spots and stripes as latent characteristics.
CD evidently refers to a reference in Gleanings from the menagerie and aviary at Knowsley Hall (J. E. Gray 1850). CD cited page 64 of J. E. Gray 1850 in Descent 2: 303 n. 40 when he referred to spots on the summer coat of the ‘hog-deer (Hyelaphus porcinus)’. Hyelephas porcinus is now Axis porcinus porcinus (Whitehead 1993, pp. 471–2).


Calendar: A calendar of the correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821–1882. With supplement. 2d edition. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994.

Caton, John Dean. 1868. American Cervus. Read before the Ottawa Academy of Natural Sciences, 21 May 1868. Ottawa, Illinois: Osman and Hapeman.

Caton, John Dean. 1880. Miscellanies. Boston: Houghton, Osgood.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

National cyclopædia of American biography. 63 vols. New York: James T. White & Co. 1892–1984.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.

Whitehead, George Kenneth. 1993. The Whitehead encyclopedia of deer. Shrewsbury: Swan Hill Press.


Observations on lateral spots on coats of two specimens of deer. PS on habits of wild and domestic turkeys.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Dean Caton
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Ottawa, Ill.
Source of text
DAR 83: 167–9, DAR 161: 125
Physical description
7pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6488,” accessed on 17 October 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16