I’m going away for a little while. I leave you with this nice picture of a male Fallow deer Dama dama, taken from Neil Phillips’ collection of UK wildlife photos (and used with his permission)…
All deer are bizarre (I’ll elaborate on that cryptic comment at some time), but Fallow deer are especially interesting: they differ from most other Old World deer in retaining spots into adulthood, in having a particularly long tail (for a deer) that is used in an unusual urination display, in having big rump patches, in lacking canines (although every now and again there are freaks: see Chapman & Chapman (1973)) and in having enlarged incisors, in having particularly big, palmate antlers, and in exhibiting really pronounced sexual size dimorphism. They might stott when escaping (stotting is the name given to the action whereby an animal leaps with all four legs leaving the ground at the same time), and they’re among the most gregarious of deer. They might also be more adapted for grazing and efficient digestion of fibre than are any other deer.
The fallow deer larynx is particularly interesting. Apparently, it used to be thought that the descended larynx was unique to humans and uniquely tied to speech. Presumably, the people that thought this had never looked at deer, as descended larynges are bloody obvious in the males of several species. By descending the larynx, a male fallow deer can decrease the formant frequencies of his call, thereby – it is thought – exaggerating his perceived body size (Fitch & Reby 2001, McElligott et al. 2006). Unlike us, male deer may be able to deliberately control the length of their vocal tract by using laryngeal retractors and an elastic thyrohyoid linkage. There have been suggestions that a descended larynx might also be present in elephants, koalas and big cats.
Endemic to Europe and Asia Minor (a second species, D. mesopotamica, is today restricted to Iran), fallow deer are the most widespread and abundant deer in Britain today: while present here during the Pleistocene interglacials, they later became extinct, and the animals we have here now were most likely introduced by the Romans (Prior 1965, Lever 1977, Yalden 1999). Members of the fossil populations were often larger than the living ones: compare the skull of the extinct subspecies (or species) D. dama clactoniana shown above with the modern-day D. dama dama skull shown below. Low levels of genetic diversity (suggesting a population bottleneck) and variable coat colour indicate that the ancestors of the modern British populations spent time as domesticates.
Arguably, fallow deer are not close relatives of the more familiar cervine deer (like Red deer), but might instead be regarded as part of a palmate-antlered deer clade that includes the giant deer, or megacerines (Geist 1999, Lister et al. 2005). These deer not only share some details of antler morphology, they also have elongate cervical vertebrae compared to other deer. Also, cave art shows that – like fallow deer – Megaloceros was highly ornamented with distinct pigmentation poles, dorsal and lateral stripes and throat stripes. Having said that, some studies do find Megaloceros to be closer to Red deer and Wapiti than to Dama (Kuehn et al. 2005), so this isn’t settled yet.
Crap, this was supposed to be a picture of the day post. For more on deer, there’s the ver 1 article about British deer here. Oh yeah, I’ve just put some (mostly silly) new pictures on my flickr site. Goodbye – I’m off to more boreal climes (though with a more local stop-off first).
Refs – –
Chapman, D. I. & Chapman, N. G. 1973. Maxillary canine teeth in Fallow deer, Dama dama. Journal of Zoology 170, 143-147.
Fitch, W. T. & Reby, D. 2001. The descended larynx is not uniquely human. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 268, 1669-1675.
Geist, V. 1999. Deer of the World. Swan Hill Press, Shrewsbury.
Kuehn, R., Ludt, C. J., Schroeder, W. & Rottmann, O. 2005. Molecular phylogeny of Megaloceros giganteus – the Giant deer or just a giant red deer? Zoological Science 22, 1031-1044.
Lever, C. 1977. The Naturalized Animals of the British Isles. Hutchinson & Co, London.
Lister, A, M., Edwards, C. J., Nock, D. A. W., Bunce, M., van Pijlen, I. A., Bradley, D. G., Thomas, M. G. & Barnes, I. 2005. The phylogenetic position of the ‘giant deer’ Megaloceros giganteus. Nature 438, 850-853.
McElligott, A. G., Birrer, M. & Vannoni, E. 2006. Retraction of the mobile descended larynx during groaning enables fallow bucks (Dama dama) to lower their formant frequencies. Journal of Zoology 270, 340-345.
Prior, R. 1965. Living With Deer. Andre Deutsch, London.
Yalden, D. W. 1999. The History of British Mammals. T & A D Poyser, London.