Tetrapod Zoology

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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.

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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.

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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.

Comments

  1. #1 The Ridger
    November 24, 2007

    Damn! He’s gone away and left us with an invalid link to his flickr site! (Maybe he’ll check in and notice?)

  2. #2 Neil
    November 24, 2007

    Hooray Im famous! lol

    I knew fallow deer were introduced, but I hadn’t realised they had been here in previous interglacial periods. Another thing to add to my list of things learned this week.

    Darrens flickr site is here: http://flickr.com/photos/62923316@N00/

  3. #3 Tengu
    November 24, 2007

    Thats something new I learned today too, I knew they were introduced by the romans, and they were related to the Megaceros (wouldnt it be cool to meet one of them? Interestingly in Irish myth there is reference to `great beamed` deer, but probably these were just big Reds…or maybe someone found a megaceros antler in a bog…Just because a story refers to a now extinct creature, doesnt mean they refer to a LIVE one…)
    Why do you say the most `widespread and abundant` Darren? Roe are very common (I have seen them grazing peacefully by the roadside in the suburbs many a time), and Muntjac are positivley virulent.
    But of course they are bizzare, the regrowing of antlers, for a very obvious example, (and one so obvious it has only been studied in depth of late)
    What is the phallic tuft for?

  4. #4 Alan Kellogg
    November 24, 2007

    “What is the phallic tuft for?”

    French tickler?

  5. #5 SMC
    November 25, 2007

    (stotting is the name given to the action whereby an animal leaps with all four legs leaving the ground at the same time)

    I thought that was called a “pronk”…

  6. #6 Raymond
    November 25, 2007

    (stotting is the name given to the action whereby an animal leaps with all four legs leaving the ground at the same time)

    “I thought that was called a “pronk”…” -SMC

    Pronking is leaping high in the air with the backbone arched upwards.Stotting is a stiff gaited hop with the backbone more or less rigidly held horizotally.

    Both are used for the same effect, to tell predators that the animals are so healthy, they can afford to engage in dangerous behavior, as well as to advertise to potential mates and rivals.

  7. #7 chris wemmer
    November 25, 2007

    Great post Darren. Being an old deer biologist I’ll add my 2 cents worth, and first on the truly unique tufted tallywhacker. No other deer has such a structure, though males of several species that practice female defense polygyny urine spray themselves during the rut. (The winner for that behavior however is not a deer species, but the Bactrian camel, who dribbles urine on the tail and then endlessly flaps the tail tassel on the rump and base of the rear hump.) The equally long tailed Pere David';s deer only sprays urine on its belly and chest, without benefit of a brush.

    On vocalization, let me say that I once regressed formant frequency of a reasonably large sample of male deer (species) against mean body size and was surprised to find that the most pronoucned outliers were muntjacs. The bark is much deeper than you’d predict. The confounding variable is habitat, because high frequencies carry farther in grasslands (wapiti), and lower frequences carry farther in woodland. It’s also confused by the fact that many popualtions no longer occupy the habitats where they probably evolved.

  8. #8 arachnophile
    November 29, 2007

    I have to echo both of the, “new-to-me,” posts. I had no idea the Fallow (I’ve always been curious about the name, B.T.W.) was introduced or that it was related to one of the creatures that totally fired my imagination as a kid, the Irish Elk. I have to echo Tengu on that one.

    GREAT post, as always. Mind you I always learn something new on this site. :D

  9. #9 william lam-peters
    June 9, 2010

    hi there,
    i am from canada, and i have become very interested in the red deer. would i be able to buy some of them to raise in the west indies, and i just cant find a way and organisations to help me do it. like 10 to 15 of them?
    he’p me please; grateful to you in advance
    william

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