Mule Deer vs Whitetail – A Quick Guide To Differentiate The Two

Mule Deer vs Whitetail – A Quick Guide To Differentiate The Two

Mule Deer vs Whitetail – 8 Key Differences To Tell Them Apart

It’s estimated that there are 30 million deer worldwide. Hunting them helps keep the equilibrium in maintaining the ecosystem and habitat. Both mule deer hunting and whitetail hunting are extremely popular, especially in the U.S.  

To new hunters and people who don’t know what to look for, telling a mule deer and a whitetail apart may be difficult.  That makes it important for hunters and other wildlife lovers to know the visual difference between the two.

The mule deer is indigenous to the Western North American belt. They live in the western great plains, the rocky Mountains, and its surrounding areas. You can also find them in the Southwest U.S. and up and down the western coast of  North America.

Whitetail deer have spread out more than mule deer.  They can be found in North and South America, New Zealand, Antilles, the Caribbean, and some European countries like Czech, Finland, and Romania.

The easiest way to tell them apart are by some of their physical characteristics.  So if you’re going out hunting or just wildlife watching and you want to know the differences, keep reading below. 

Mule Deer vs. Whitetail Deer– Visual Differences

At first glance, mule deer and whitetail deer look the same.  It’s when you start looking a little closer that you’ll start to notice some of the physical differences.

Ear Size and Shape

female mule deer
Female Mule Deer. Notice the ears are angular, sticking almost off the side of their head. They are also large and floppy.
female whitetail deer
Female Whitetail Deer. Notice the ears are more round and stick almost straight up.

Ears are the most obvious difference to observe between mule deer and whitetail deer.

Mule deer have longer, pointy, and floppier ears than whitetail deer. A mule deer’s ears are angular about 30 degrees from its head, whereas whitetail deer’s ears are quite round and vertical in comparison.

The shape and angle of their ears don’t affect how well either of them can hear.  Both mule deer and whitetail deer hear extremely well.  This is their number one defense against predators.  

Coat Colors

Coat colors greatly vary in mule deer and whitetail deer species.

Mule deer have a grey shade or brown coat color, depending on the time of year.  In the winter they turn more grey.  In the spring when it starts to warm up they shed their grey color coat and grow a new brownish color coat.  In contrast, whitetail’s coat looks more like reddish, brown color shades. Sometimes, they can even have a dull orangish hue to them.

Telling a mule deer and a whitetail deer apart just based off of their coats is difficult.  That’s because their coats change color depending on the season.  Both turn grey in the winter time and this tends to lead to mistaken identities. 

Tail Size and Color

male mule deer
Male Mule Deer. Notice how the tail is skinny and has a black tip.
two whitetail deer fighting
Two Male Whitetail Deer. Notice how big and fluffy the tail is. When they are alerted it will stick straight up in the air and be bright white.

Whitetail deer gets its name due to its whitetail. But mule deer also have some white in their tails, so what’s the difference?

Whitetail deer has a restless tail. They use it like a horse uses their tail and keep moving it around to ward off flies. It’s also more of a significant feature; on a whitetail. When a whitetail is in danger or alerted, it often raises its tail straight up.  This is when its tail is the most prominent. 

Mule deer don’t use their tails near as much as whitetails do.  

You may also observe that mule deer tails are thinner, look more like a rope, and is black on the tip. Whitetail deer have a thicker and fluffier looking tail.  It’s also the same color as its coat with no black markings on it.

Antler Formation And Size

male mule deer
Male Mule Deer. Notice how the antlers branch in multiple locations.
male whitetail deer
Male Whitetail Deer. Notice how the antlers all branch off of the main beam.

Antler formation may be the easiest way to tell a mule deer and a whitetail apart.  But only males grow antlers.

Mule deer have this antler formation that roots up like a fork; it further fragments it into two more forks on each prong stemming from its skull. This is a basic formation or pattern.  Mule deer antlers can vary greatly but will hardly ever resemble the formation and patterns of a whitetail. 

Whitetail deer will have a different pattern all together.  Their antlers have one long tine that stems from their skull.  They usually have more tines branch off the one long main tine.  They rarely branch off anywhere besides the main tine. 

Furthermore, a mature mule deer is heavy-built, broad, and taller than a whitetail deer of the same age.  This is true for both males and females.  A mule deer will generally be larger than a whitetail. 

Interestingly, both shed their antlers every year in succession to each other. Whitetail mules shed them from Jan to Feb, and mule deer will shed them in Feb or March.

Facial Differences

Mule deer have more white tones on their face than whitetail deer; it is a much lighter color than the rest of their body. Mule deer have a darker forehead than that of a whitetail deer.

Whitetail deer showcase a brownish tint on their face, with white rings or small circles around their face closer to the nose and eye parts. You may observe there’s almost no white on a whitetail deer from nose to the eyes.

Significantly, both deer have white in their neck areas.

Overall Shape And Size

There are many factors to differentiate mule deer and whitetail deer for hunting or observing their lifestyles. Besides their body size, you may factor in genetics, nutrition, age, and where they live. A mule deer is bigger than an average whitetail deer. Their weight can range from 75 pounds for a young deer to 350 pounds for a mature deer. Both deer will grow up to 36 to 42 inches at the shoulders.

Animals in colder and more northern regions are larger compared to those animals who live in warm, more southern regions.

Differences In Habitat

Whitetail deer are more common than mule deer in America, giving them a larger geo range.

Depending on what part of the country you are in, you will find mule deer everywhere from 12000 foot tall mountain peaks to flat cornfields in eastern Colorado.  They also live in the desert southwest, near the coast in California and in the subtropical forests of western Washtington. 

In comparison, whitetail deer is in abundance all over the United States, barring some western states.  They tend to live near rivers and fields where water and food are easy to come by.  

Behavioral Differences

The biggest behavioral difference is their composure. Mule deer are more tolerant of noisy surroundings. They try to see what is making the noise before bounding off. Whitetail deer get spooked easily. They will shoot up their tail and run at the first sign of danger. Mule deer will hop or bound when they are running.  Whitetail deer gallop away when they are scared. 

Mule Deer vs Whitetail – Final Word

Big game hunting and deer hunting especially have been around for thousands of years.  It was a means of survival for our early ancestors.  Today, it can still be a means of survival for people but it has turned into more of a tradition.  Deer hunting is a great way to spend quality time with the ones you love.  If you’re going out hunting mule deer or whitetail, make sure you know the difference between the two so you don’t end up shooting the wrong one.  

Happy Hunting! 


Hey I'm Karson. I've been hunting since I was 8 and shed hunting even before that. If you have any questions for me, fill out a form on the contact page, send me an email at or leave a comment on the below. Thanks