Detection and Avoidance of Predators in White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and Mule Deer (O. hemionus)



In this paper, we investigate the relationship between early detection of predators and predator avoidance in white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and mule deer (O. hemionus), two closely related species that differ in their habitat preferences and in their anti-predator behavior. We used observations of coyotes (Canis latrans) hunting deer to test whether the distance at which white-tails and mule deer alerted to coyotes was related to their vulnerability to predation. Coyote encounters with both species were more likely to escalate when deer alerted at shorter distances. However, coyote encounters with mule deer progressed further than encounters with white-tails that alerted at the same distance, and this was not due to species differences in group size or habitat. We then conducted an experiment in which a person approached groups of deer to compare the detection abilities and the form of alert response for white-tails and mule deer, and for age groups within each species. Mule deer alerted to the approacher at longer distances than white-tails, even after controlling for variables that were potentially confounding. Adult females of both species alerted sooner than conspecific juveniles. Mule deer almost always looked directly at the approacher as their initial response, whereas white-tails were more likely to flee or to look in another direction with no indication that they pinpointed the approacher during the trial. Mule deer may have evolved the ability to detect predators earlier than white-tails as an adaptation to their more open habitats, or because they need more time to coordinate subsequent anti-predator defenses.