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Study: Dispersed young deer survive wellStudy: Dispersed young deer survive well

Penn State researchers conduct mortality study of dispersal where deer were exposed to threats.

March 19, 2021

4 Min Read
Doe and fawn
LEAVING THE HERD: You might think that young deer, in the face of many threats, have a hard time surviving in the wild. But a recent study by Penn State researchers shows young deer that dispersed have as good a chance at survival as deer that stayed closer to home. GizmoPhoto/Getty Images

If you have children, you know the feeling of dread — or joy — when you see them off to college or to their first apartment or house. You only hope they’ll turn out well.

For juvenile white-tailed deer that strike out to find their new homes, chances are they’ll probably do just fine. At least that’s the finding of a study led by Penn State. The study found that despite facing more risks, juvenile deer survive at about the same rate as those that stay home.

According to Penn State, this is the first mortality study of male and female dispersal where deer were exposed to threats such as hunting throughout their entire range.

Dispersal occurs when a juvenile leaves the area where it was born and moves to a new location where the young animal establishes its adult home range, says Duane Diefenbach, Penn State adjunct professor of wildlife ecology. The instinctual dispersal of young deer to a new home range protects the species’ gene pool from inbreeding with close relatives.

Diefenbach’s research group in the College of Agricultural Sciences has radio-collared hundreds of Pennsylvania deer over the past 20 years, monitoring their survival, movement and behavior. Earlier research done by his lab, in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, showed that about 3 of every 4 young, male white-tailed deer disperse, with yearling female dispersal rates much lower.

Dispersal distances depend on forested cover. But on average in Pennsylvania, males travel more than 3 miles, typically in direct, straight-line fashion. Females that disperse often wander around before settling down an average of about 9 miles from where they started.

“We wanted to know how risky dispersal is,” says lead researcher Eric Long, now a professor of biology at Seattle Pacific University, who was a doctoral student at Penn State and was advised by Diefenbach when early stages of the research unfolded. He was surprised to find no detectable increase in death among dispersing deer.

“We expected to find that dispersal results in added mortality because deer are traveling across unfamiliar territory and are more likely to encounter predators or vehicles,” Long says. “Going into this research, I expected to have a lot of our dispersers killed by vehicles as they were making the movement. We were surprised at how effective deer are at dispersing, especially when they have to deal with relatively modern risks like roads and hunting.”

Performing the study

Researchers captured 398 juvenile male and 276 juvenile female white-tailed deer and compared survival rates of dispersers and nondispersers. 

Over three years, 381 males were equipped with very high frequency — or VHF — radio transmitters and were located with telemetry at least weekly; 17 were equipped with global positioning system, or GPS, radio transmitters that recorded positions at least twice daily.

Over six years, 245 females were equipped with VHF transmitters and located at least weekly; 32 were equipped with GPS transmitters that recorded position at least daily. 

Juvenile deer were captured in the winter through early spring. At the time of capture, they were 7 to 10 months old. For both male and female white-tailed deer, natal dispersal before 11 months of age is rare, Long says, so capture between December and April decreased the likelihood of capturing juveniles that had already dispersed.

The results

The study, recently published in Ecology and Evolution, showed that for both male and female yearlings, survival rates of dispersers — males 49.9%, females 64.0% — did not differ appreciably from those of nondispersers — males 51.6%, females 70.7%. Only two individuals, both female, were killed by vehicular collision during dispersal movement.

So, why do dispersing juvenile deer fare as well as nondispersers despite facing more risk? Researchers aren’t sure, but Long suspects that deer with the predisposition to be more adventurous might have a genetic makeup that helps them avoid threats.

Also, he says, there is some evidence to suggest that yearlings in better condition, with bigger bodies, are more likely to disperse than deer in poorer condition.

“It may be that only those deer that are up to the challenge of dispersal even try it,” Long says. “Bucks, which are more likely to disperse, seem much more efficient at dispersal than females. They don’t mess around and wander all over the place like does, and that likely decreases their risk.”

This work was supported by the Pennsylvania Game Commission; Pennsylvania Audubon Society; the Susquehanna, Southeast and Northcentral Pennsylvania branches of the Quality Deer Management Association; the Pennsylvania Deer Association; and the U.S. Geological Survey. 

Diefenbach is an employee of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Source: Penn State University, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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