By Gina Cherelus
(Reuters) - Several endangered deer found only in the lower Florida keys were sighted on Monday, easing fears about the fate of the tiny species after Hurricane Irma swamped their vulnerable archipelago ecosystem.
With the highway to the Keys open only to emergency vehicles, power mostly out and communications disrupted, experts said it was too early to tell how the overall population of up to one thousand Key deer had fared.
But those who were anxious about their survival rejoiced on social media when a short video was posted on Twitter showing several cavorting by a roadside on Big Pine Key.
"So thrilled ... can you imagine how terrified they were and are!?" wrote one North Carolina-based tweeter, Tina O'Connor.
The Key deer is the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer, with males standing only about 3 feet (1 m) at the shoulder and females even smaller. Most live on two islands, Big Pine Key and No Name Key, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine, only 15 miles (24 km) east of where Irma slammed ashore as a category 4 hurricane early Sunday, was closed ahead of the storm's arrival, officials said. It will remain shut to visitors until further notice.
"We will assess the status of all refuge resources when it is safe to do so and we have the ability to do so," Dan Clark, superintendent of the refuge, told the Miami Herald newspaper.
Representatives of the deer refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission did not immediately respond to queries.
Poaching and habitat loss reduced the Key Deer to just a few dozen animals by the 1950s.
Their numbers recovered quickly after the refuge was opened in 1967. It covers some 9,200 acres (3723 hectares) of pine, hardwood and mangrove forests set amid freshwater and salt marsh wetlands, and is home to 23 endangered and threatened species of plants and animals.
The deer are the only large herbivore in the Keys, feeding on more than 100 different native plants.
Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm on Monday after flooding several northern Florida cities with heavy rain and a high surge of seawater.
(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Hay)