Between hunters and cars, the fall is a hard time for deer. Now, a University of Missouri researcher is gaining insight into the world of the graceful animal through tiny cameras mounted on their heads.
A team led by Josh Millspaugh, assistant professor of natural resources, mounted small, wireless video cameras on three white-tailed deer, then collected more than 200 hours of "deercam" video, giving a deer's-eye view as the animals ate, slept, sparred, played, even mutually groomed.
The work, done in partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation, has caught the attention of the National Science Foundation, which is providing a $1 million grant for additional deercam studies.
"Until now we have had to use remote techniques such as radio transmitters or Global Positioning System collars to study wildlife behavior," Millspaugh said.
But seeing what the deer sees may help explain some behaviors. "Knowing that 'why' is critical to our understanding," he said.
Lots of contact
The cameras caught the deer fighting and playing. One kept returning to the same tree to drink water from a hole in the tree. Researchers were most struck by the amount of contact between the deer.
"There was almost constant interaction — mouth-to-mouth interaction, grooming," Millspaugh said. "When we talk about issues such as disease transmission, boy, it's sure useful to know how much in contact they are with one another."
The study took place at the Charles W. Green Memorial Conservation Area near Ashland in central Missouri. The fenced, 10-acre area contained 11 deer, including three adult males, one male fawn, five adult does and two female fawns.
The deer were tranquilized, and then the battery-run cameras, fitted with miniature transmitters, were mounted on the antlers of two male deer. One female wore a neck-mounted camera. Images were collected by electronic signal on a VHS tape.
Millspaugh said technology will be improved over the next year, then cameras will be mounted on deer in the wild.
In the early 1900s, deer were almost extinct in Missouri. Now, the state's deer population is estimated at 1 million, the Conservation Department said. Hunters annually kill more than 200,000 deer in the state. The firearms season is Nov. 12-22.
Why did the deer cross the road?
About 8,000 more deer are struck each year by vehicles in Missouri. Nationwide, 150 to 200 people die annually in accidents involving deer.
No vehicles were near the study site, but Millspaugh said future camera-mounted deer studies should offer clues into what prompts deer to run into roadways.
"Are they going quickly to the roads, or are they slowing down? What are the corridors they travel? There might be certain habitat configurations that funnel them in different directions, possibly in the direction of roads. That's the kind of thing we'll be able to learn about," Millspaugh said.
Meanwhile, as the St. Louis and Kansas City areas continue to expand into what were previously rural areas, deer are a growing nuisance for homeowners, bringing with them fleas and ticks and scaring household pets.
Those involved in the study say the deercam may help the state determine the best way to manage the deer population.
Eventually, the videos will be placed on the Internet, Millspaugh said.