How Deer Adapt To Hunting Activity
Human activity can be a major disruptive force for certain species, and in some cases it can even contribute to accelerating or sculpting animal evolution. Studies have documented that populations of animals that are hunted can show “substantial alteration of morphological and life history traits,” with changes averaging 18% and 25% difference from the norm, respectively. Hunting may also alter the behavior of individual animals and has the potential to impact entire populations as behavioral traits are passed down from one generation to the next. Deer, for example, appear to respond to hunting by trading off their ability to easily harvest food for safety, and vice versa.
The authors of this study wanted to understand whether and how European red deer, an abundant species in Norway with no natural predators, alter their behavior at the onset of the hunting season. More specifically, they wanted to know whether deer respond to hunting activity by changing their habitat. The authors compared the habitats of 10 deer who survived the beginning of the hunting season to the habitat of 10 deer who were killed during this time, looking specifically at the amount of cover (i.e., foliage that provides camouflage) and foraging resources in each habitat.
The researchers’ data showed that within days of the hunting season, surviving male deer switched from using open habitat that contained abundant food sources to habitat that provided increased cover but fewer food sources. (Female deer, whether they survived or were killed, consistently chose habitat with greater cover over that with greater food sources. This likely because they were already seeking areas that provided greater protection for their fawns.) The researchers found that the surviving males’ habitat choice is a dynamic response and a “deliberately employed spatial strategy in response to hunting” that seemed to successfully manage risk.
Notably, the study does not show the degree to which choosing habitat with fewer food sources negatively impacts deer or whether they can compensate for this sacrifice in other ways. However, the authors point out that hunters may play a role in shaping the evolution of risk avoidance behavior in deer because hunters unintentionally harvest more “bold” individuals who, despite threats to their survival, choose open, food abundant habitat. For advocates, the study offers evidence that hunting has effects beyond just the act of killing; it changes how animals relate to their environment. This is powerful information that advocates could use in range of creative ways to challenge hunting.