Elk are smarter than the average deer

The huge North American ‘elk’ is also known as the ‘wapiti’ (‘white rump’ in the Cree language).

It was treated as a race of the red deer until DNA analysis suggested that it be deemed a distinct species. The Japanese sika deer, introduced to Wicklow and Killarney, is a close relative.

The wapiti I encountered in Yellowstone, 40 years ago, were amazingly trusting. You have to stalk red deer to get close to them in Ireland.

Their American cousins, however, allowed us to approach and photograph them. The ones in the Canadian Rockies were equally tolerant; they even walked casually past our tent. Nor did the camp fire deter them.

Of course they were protected at these locations; had hunting been allowed, things would have been very different. Just how variable wapiti behaviour can be, is explored in a paper just published in the PLOS One journal.

The authors, from the University of Alberta, have been studying the responses of these elk to shooting pressure.

We tend to think that deer, and hoofed vegetarians generally, are stupid, at least compared to the creatures which prey on them. The Canadian researchers claim that, on the contrary, the reactions of wapiti to the threats they face is remarkably sophisticated.

Individuals were captured using ‘net-guns’ fired from a helicopter in Alberta and British Columbia. GPS radio-collars were fitted to 49 females.

Devices in the collars cause them to drop off the animals before the batteries expire. The deer were tracked over a seven-year period, the distances they travelled, the ruggedness of the terrain visited, and the cover it offered being of particular interest to the researchers.

About 50% of males and 20% of females in the study area were killed by hunters. Cougars accounted for a further 5%. The study showed that, as the deer aged, they became progressively more cautious.

“Female elk are almost invulnerable to human hunters when older than nine or ten years,” the authors claim.

How should we interpret this finding? Some individuals might be more adventurous han others. These ‘braver’ risk-takers would tend to attract the attention of hunters, making them easier to shoot than shyer ones, whose innately secretive ways rendered them difficult to target.

The scientists, however, reject this explanation. They claim, instead, that wapiti learn from experience and modify their behaviour accordingly.

As an elk gets older, it becomes more street-wise. Moving about, for example, is risky which is why the wapiti travelled less as they got older. By doing so, they render themselves less likely to be ambushed by hunters.

Deer also learned to use “secure areas (forest and steeper terrain), especially when close to roads”.

These were not ‘once bitten, twice shy’ reactions, but measures adopted by the deer to help them cope with perceived dangers. Elk deploy differing security strategies in the open seasons for rifle and for bow-and-arrow hunting.

A bullet can be lethal over several hundred metres, so the wapiti learned to remain hidden when rifles were being used. A bow and arrow can be deployed only at closer range, so a strategy which made stalking difficult was adopted then.

“Older females increased the use of rugged terrain during the bow compared to the rifle season,” the research showed. “This fine-tuning by elk to avoid hunters, rather than just becoming more cautious during the hunting season, highlights the behavioural plasticity of the species.”

The trusting animals I encountered in Yellowstone and the Rockies all those years ago were not so stupid after all. They knew that, in a protected environment, people were no threat and they behaved accordingly.

Thurfjell H., et al. Learning from the mistakes of others: how female elk adjust behaviour with age to avoid hunters. PLOS One. June 2-17, 2017.


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