It’s that time of year again. From Texas to Maine, whitetail hunters are feverishly pulling trail cam photos to take a first look at the bucks in their area. For those disappointed with their results, a new paper published in “Ecology and Evolution” might offer some hope.
Researchers in Missouri tracked what appears to be the farthest journey ever recorded by a whitetail buck. Over 22 days in November of 2017, this whitetail—who I’ve decided to call “the Odysseus deer”—took an astounding 186-mile trek through northern Missouri, averaging about 8.5 miles per day.
He wasn’t just moving in circles, either. His straight-line journey measured 133 miles across 16 counties, 108 miles longer than any male whitetail recorded in scientific literature. He also crossed a major river seven times, an interstate highway, a railroad, and eight state highways.
The 3.5-year-old buck made this journey smack in the middle of Missouri’s whitetail season. While no Missouri hunter capitalized on the deer’s movement, if there are more like him out there, hunters can always have hope that a big buck might wander in with the next sunrise.
A Historic Journey The researchers who published the paper are working on a more extensive study tracking the survival, population recruitment, habitat use, and resource selection of whitetails in Missouri. They put GPS collars on 343 whitetails, including 58 adult males and 123 male fawns. The Odysseus deer, known in the paper as N17003, was collared when he was 2.5 years old and appeared totally healthy.
One of the study’s authors, Jon McRoberts, told Tony Peterson on a recent episode of Wired To Hunt that he learned about the deer when someone sent him a picture of a collared buck far outside their study area. He at first thought it was a joke, but when he went back to the tracking data, he found Odysseus right away.
“I said, ‘Holy smokes!’ I saw this line going across northern Missouri. It was a bit of a shock when I drew up all the locations for the first time,” he told Peterson.
This whitetail is unique for a few reasons. While females have been known to travel great distances, they’ve never been recorded traveling such a long straight-line distance. One female, for example, moved 287 miles but only dispersed 25 miles.
Odysseus’ 133-mile straight-line journey is even more uncommon for an adult male. However, juvenile whitetail bucks will often travel to avoid inbreeding, escape competition or hunting pressure, and find available mating partners. The previous record for male whitetail movement, 132 miles, was made by a yearling in South Dakota.
But adults rarely travel any great distance. While even the average juvenile only disperses in the tens of miles, adults in an established range are even bigger homebodies. Prior to this paper, the longest recorded journey of an adult whitetail was only 25 miles, according to the paper’s authors.
“The sheer length of the movement is incredible. Add to that length the fact that this is a mature buck, and you have a very unique event,” lead author Remington Moll told MeatEater. “I am also impressed that this individual moved so far during rifle season in a state with more than half a million hunters-and survived!”
Why Would a Buck Travel So Far? Why would a healthy, adult male whitetail make such a long journey? A combination of factors urged Odysseus onward, but researchers can’t say which was most important.
“As with many things in nature, the movement is likely a combination of factors—a bit of mate competition, perhaps some increased movement due to hunting pressure, a dash of habitat fragmentation due to landscape development, and the fact that individual animals behave differently. Put those factors together, and they begin to explain the movement,” Moll said.
McRoberts is somewhat less convinced that the typical reasons a deer might disperse apply in this case. He pointed out that N17003 had access to suitable habitat all along his route, likely encountered tons of females, and wasn’t facing social pressure due to his age.
“I think this was an individual deer that was just marching to his own beat,” he said. “A deer hunter would like a better answer. I’d like a better answer as a biologist. But you think of the conventional wisdom that would drive a deer to disperse. That wasn’t the case here.”
Whatever motivated the Odysseus deer, he was getting there quick. The deer traveled mostly at night when his movements were faster and more directional than during the day when he camped out in forested locations.
We asked Moll whether this directional movement indicated that the deer had a particular location in mind, but the biologist pointed out that dispersals often follow this pattern.
“Dispersal movements are often directional. Biologically, a straight line is often an efficient way to ‘get away’ from undesirable processes like inbreeding,” he said. “The straight, fast nature of the movement is not surprising. Rather, the surprising aspects are the incredible length and that this movement was performed by a mature buck rather than a yearling.”
Why Is This Deer Important? Unusual animals are always interesting, but this deer is important for a few more practical reasons.
First, N17003 could influence how state wildlife agencies manage the spread of deer-borne diseases like chronic wasting disease (CWD). Current policies keep normal deer behavior in mind, but if Odysseus deer are more common than we think, agencies might need to rethink CWD-affiliated hunter regulations.
McRoberts cautioned that wildlife experts can’t make policy based on outliers, and he didn’t call for agencies to change CWD mitigation strategies based on a single deer. But Moll told us the paper does highlight the importance of inter-organization cooperation and the need for a big-picture approach.
“The Missouri Department of Conservation funded this work in partnership with the University of Missouri and the University of Montana. This study highlights the benefits of such partnerships and the need to continue to monitor populations as humans change the landscape through development and activity,” he said. “Certainly, the sheer scale of the movement emphasizes the importance of broad, landscape-scale strategies for disease monitoring and mitigation.”
The paper also proves that what we often consider impassable barriers aren’t always so impassable.
“Depending on the landscape context, cities, roads, and rivers can all act as movement barriers for white-tailed deer. In the case of N17003, the study area's major river presented little impediment to movement, while roads and cities appeared to influence, but not obstruct, the overall dispersal trajectory,” the authors wrote.
The question, of course, is whether N17003 is a one-in-a-million outlier or a one-in-a-thousand outlier. Biologists are reasonably sure the Odysseus deer is rare, but tracking studies typically only document the movements of a tiny subset of populations.
“In a state such as Missouri with over 1 million deer, long-distance dispersals might be rarely documented in practice but fairly commonplace in reality across larger populations,” the authors write.
Either way, McRoberts says we’ll be able to answer that question in the coming years. GPS technology is becoming more accessible, which will enable biologists to track a deer’s movement no matter where it goes on the map.
“Did we get lucky and happen to collar a very unique individual? Or do these movements happen more frequently than we realize?” Moll asked. “One study cannot provide those answers, but it will hopefully inspire future discovery.”
For now, hunters can hope that they’ll run across an Odysseus deer this fall—or, more accurately, that an Odysseus deer will run across them. Hopefully, it won’t be quite as elusive as N17003. The rambling deer survived Missouri’s 2017 whitetail season and lived until June of 2018 when researchers believed he died of a hemorrhagic disease.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.