The deer with a hairy eyeball: The case of ‘Damn Unlucky’

Yeah, you read that right. That’s the title of a blog post by an incredibly bored deer (who is also quite lucky, if you ask me)! This is a story about a deer who got a nasty scratch on its eye from a flying tree branch, causing it to scratch and tear up its eyes. An eye infection set in, resulting in some serious swelling. The deer’s original eye was already quite swollen, so when it couldn’t see straight, it got thoroughly freaked out and ran away from the herd.

In this story, we explore the case of a deer that had a cellulitis infection in its eyeball, due to this deer’s skin infection of the eye with mites. These mites were known as deer eye mites, and this deer was suffering from the wound, which was swollen and covered in the mites.

So you’ve most likely seen a deer with “pasty-white” eyes in your lifetime. But what exactly causes them? And why are they so seemingly “unlucky?” Well, the answer to the first question is quite simple—it’s pretty much a genetic mutation. It’s been estimated that about 25% of white-eyed deer in the wild are afflicted with the condition, and it’s believed to be a recessive gene. But what causes it? It’s thought that they’re born with a different color of eye, but the lack of pigmentation causes them to appear “white.”

Damned Misfortune had, quite simply, a hairy eyeball. Scientifically, the Tennessee deer had corneal inflammation, a very rare disease. The deer were killed in August, and the strange discovery was made at the same time. (Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency). word-image-5910 Bob Zinc , author of the article. One early morning, I saw a headline in the National Deer Association’s online newsletter: Buck’s sample had corneal dermoids. In my pre-coffee stupor, I thought: Why does a man need cornmeal? Wait, what are dermoids? Lindsey Thomas Jr.’s article was, in a word, fascinating. I just finished a lecture on the human genome and how amazing it is that all or most of our cells have a DNA blueprint to create whatever we want, anywhere in our bodies. Even cooler is that the genes for making nails are only activated in the cells at the tips of our fingers (and toes, in the case of toenails), the muscle cells are in the right places, and the genes for our compound eyes are in the sockets of our skull. This process is a matter of genetic regulation. So we don’t have toenails on our heads, eyeballs on our knees, etc. However, sometimes this process goes wrong. The fruit fly has mutations that turn its feelers into legs – cool, but not if you’re that fly. Other flies may have two sets of wings. Sometimes the development process gets very confusing, and we’ve seen a cow with two heads, turtles with heads at both ends, and humans with tails. Yes, some human babies have a tail (there are less than 50 known cases), which is usually surgically removed. The term for the genetic expression and growth of an abnormal structure in an abnormal location is atavism. The aforementioned monster, who would be Damn Unlucky (DU, with apologies to Ducks Unlimited), was shot in East Tennessee in late August 2020 at the age of 1-1⁄2 while wandering around in a stupor and obstructing traffic. No wonder DU was wandering around; hair was growing out of his eyeball. Remember that vertebrate eyes consist of an iris (the colored part), a pupil (the dark, open center), and a lens, all covered by the cornea – the thing that, when you scratch it, hurts terribly. DU’s cornea was the site of random skin genes doing their job and forming hair, as they should, but not there. DU’s condition was exacerbated by EHD, epizootic hemorrhagic disease. Unlike CWD – which is actually something completely different – EHD is caused by a virus that spreads the bulky no-see-ums. Populations are often severely affected by HDE, but the viral infection in the population disappears over time. CWD, caused by increasing amounts of abnormal protein, a non-living entity, accumulates in the soil as an environmental toxin and continues to infect deer regardless of the number of deer in the area. The deer’s genotype can prevent the development of the disease, but it is currently considered 100% lethal. EHD and CWD are very different from each other. However, DU had EHD and showed similar disorientation symptoms as deer with CWD. It is not known whether DU’s eye problem is related to EHD. Many deer had EHD without reports of corneal dermoids. This deviation of the eyeball is called corneal dermoid. The term dermoid comes from dermis (skin) and refers to a functional piece of skin that grows where it normally would not, in this case in the AU cornea. Genes can produce glands and other features in addition to skin. Many other animals have suffered from this condition, including dwarf rabbits, hairless guinea pigs (how ironic), livestock and at least one human. Sir, I’m sorry. Thomas reports that the pathologist suspected that DU had been suffering from the condition since birth and that he probably survived so long because he stayed in a relatively safe urban area and was cared for by his mother, at least in the early days. It is not known whether the dermoid increased in area and severity over time, or whether DU was in fact blind from birth, or whether his condition gradually worsened. Damn Unlucky is one of two deer that suffer from this condition.  Another known whitetail with corneal dermoids was an 11⁄2 year old doe killed in St. John’s Parish. It was described in an article by LaDucer et al. in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases. Unlike the DU, this doe had three relatively small spots only on her left eye. Necropsy revealed that these three formations on the deer’s cornea consisted of hair follicles, sebaceous glands (which produce oil) and apocrine glands (which produce sweat), and well-differentiated cartilage. The most surprising thing to me is that the authors report finding a cystic tarsal gland in the eyelid! Talk about bad genes! The tarsal gland (foot gland), which appears on the eyelid… These corneal deroids are a reminder of how well coordinated the developmental systems of vertebrates are, from a single fertilized cell to millions of cells developing in the right places to create a body as complex as that of the white-tailed deer, which had hairy eyeballs in only two known cases – out of a total of millions of prey.There is a natural phenomenon that is all to common in the rural parts of the world. This phenomenon, which is known as “Damn Unlucky”, occurs when a deer has an injured eye and loses its sight in that eye. The animal, due to its erratic behavior, may become a danger to humans. There can be upwards to three such deer in any given location. There are both male and female deer with the ability to reproduce, so the odds of finding such a deer in a given location is higher than the “Damn Unlucky” phenomenon.. Read more about corneal dermoids deer and let us know what you think.

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