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Does a deer have a built-in compass? Study says yes

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Shoo, pesky magpie

An urban deer shoos a pesky magpie off its rump during a backyard wildlife encounter among the three in Missoula.

Anyone who’s watched a herd of Missoula’s urban deer bolt away from a dog may have noticed something: Despite their panic, the deer never run into one another.

Petr Obleser noticed the same thing with European roe deer, and he decided to figure out why. He concluded deer have an inner compass that can sense magnetic fields. When startled, they tend to escape along a north-south axis. So everyone knows where everyone else is going.

That’s the conclusion published in the scientific journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology this month. Obleser works at the University of Life Sciences in the Czech Republic, and did the research with Hynek Burda at Germany’s University Duisburg-Essen. The journal editors reported their study appears to be the first looking at how magnetic compass directions might synchronize escape directions in animals.

“This is something that’s better studied in birds and other animals with long-distance homing behavior,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Nick DeCesare, who has examined the study. “This same group of researchers published a paper a few years ago posing this idea, and this is their follow-up experiment. That lends it some credibility. It looks like their data supports the idea but doesn’t confirm it.”

Obleser and Burda monitored roe deer in 60 separate areas in three hunting districts in the Czech Republic over 46 days in 2014. They noted the deer tended to graze along north-south lines.

“When startled, the animals generally fled away from observers,” Obleser told the journal editors. “They did not merely make their getaway in the direction directly opposite the approaching threat, but consistently did so north- or southwards. In fact, they seemed to actively avoid escaping westwards and eastwards. Wind direction or the position of the sun had no influence on the direction of their escape route.”

The north-south route choice was more common in groups of deer than individuals, the researchers reported. Obleser said this suggests the tendency helps coordinate movement within the herd, so they don’t crash into one another. It may also help them maintain a mental map of their movements. That could be important to finding the way back to a good grazing area or to relocate a fawn left behind.

Most of the research took place in flat agricultural land. Many Montana wildlife watchers and hunters might question the study based on their observations of how deer tend to startle up- or downhill, regardless of compass direction.

It also doesn’t address a much bigger question: When startled, why do so many deer run straight into cars?

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