Human avoidant prey animals and their origins.
August 19, 2005 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Evolutionary Biologists: A friend and I were walking through the woods, saw a deer and started pondering our ability to survive with primitive tools. We couldn't get within 40 meters of the deer before it took off. I couldn't see myself making a missile weapon to kill it at that range even with years of experience. My friend asserted that evolutionary pressures have produced deer that are quite a bit more skittish than the deer our distant ancestors had to hunt... question is this: While interaction with humans has definately rewarded deer with a propensity towards human-avoidance, is it justified to assume that there was a time when deer (or similar animals) would be indifferent to the presence of humans?

Friend seems to advance a notion that, in the same way Aurochs were turned into docile, human-ignoring cows by selective breeding, deer were turned into human-avoiders through selective culling. The deer more likely to reproduce being the ones who showed more inclination to being wary of bipedal ape-men... decent with modification... and so on. Also, I'm assuming that he's advancing that this happened slowly, over the course of thousands of years (much like domestication) and that the deer we encounter now are the "most skittish" deer in history (trending skittishier as time advances)

I know about the dodo, seals, etc. and I truly don't understand it. I am comfortable with the idea that a rabbit would have no concern about close proximity of a deer, and vice versa... but there's just something dangerous looking about humans. Like if I saw something that looked like one of the aliens from "Alien" I'd know to get the fuck out of it's way despite the fact that i'd never seen one.

Does there exist an ecosystem on earth that humans have not interacted with, ever? If this ecosystem exists, are there breadbox- to washing machine sized prey animals who would be indifferent to my presence?

Thanks for any and all help. Also, please do me the favor of taking"skittishier" into consideration for introduction into your lexicons.
posted by cadastral to Science & Nature (20 answers total)
IANAB but I believe the Galapagos has some animals that are not afraid of humans.

I also don't buy your friends argument about deer becoming less skittish. We putting much less pressure on the deer population than we did in past. There are areas where there is problem with deer overpopulation and "wild" deer in semi-urban areas don't seem all that skittish to me.
posted by rdr at 9:48 AM on August 19, 2005

The deer that live in Rock Creek Park (think urban park like Central Park) could care less about humans or their cars. The deer on an Alabama farm I used to hunt (where they were usually free to feed on lush pastures unmolested by humans for 275 days a year) also could care less about people for the most part.

They did seem to care about the coyotes and coy-dogs though. Their avoidance behavior was tuned to a different predator. That doesn't mean that you could just walk up and pet them, they were still wild animals. I think if a bunny approached a deer in a sudden manner, that too might spook the animal.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:04 AM on August 19, 2005

Did he consider the reverse--that humans have become inept?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:07 AM on August 19, 2005

I would imagine that millions of years of evolutionary adaptations encouraging dislike of large animals in general (bears, cougars, etc.) would have more impact on deer behavior than the 50,000 year (or so?) history of humans hunting deer. I don't think the short-term last-couple-hundred-years interaction with deer would account for any changes in deer behavior.

As for ecosystems that have not been touched by the hand of humans... Well there are those black smokers down at the bottom of the Atlantic and Pacific. Additionally, there are a handful of known ecosystems (and probably thousands/millions of unknown) existing in hot springs or otherwise underground.

Of course, no large predators there.
posted by pwb503 at 10:08 AM on August 19, 2005

Birds in antarctica are not afraid of humans.
posted by fire&wings at 10:16 AM on August 19, 2005

My friend asserted that evolutionary pressures have produced deer that are quite a bit more skittish than the deer our distant ancestors had to hunt...

Well, we killed all their natural predators (wolves, bears, etc) so chances are they'd be a lot less afraid of anything then in the past. But they're still going to run away from the 'unknown', or any large animal it's never seen before.

If you saw some huge animal you'd never seen, or seen a picture of before you'd probably be terrified if it started coming towards you.

It's not a question of humans, but rather predators in general.

Also, in order for any kind of evolution to take place, you generaly need a small, isolated population. That's definetly not the case with deer.
posted by delmoi at 10:29 AM on August 19, 2005

Also, in order for any kind of evolution to take place

For it to take place within a few generations maybe. Selective breeding can take a long time to show changes, but they happen even in large populations.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:35 AM on August 19, 2005

I think there is quite a bit of variation among individuals in animal populations. I regularly see a rabbit on one of my runs that is not (very) afraid of humans, I assume its because it's never molested by any. If I wanted to kill it it would be quite easy.

Also, hunting deer is not really a walk up on them and club them type of experience. It's fairly easy to position yourself somewhere a deer will wander by (along a path, by food, by water) and have one come quite close to you. Think about all the waterhole nature programs. Yes, the waterhole is an interesting place, vital to life on the savannah; the reason all the movies are shot there is because all the animals have to come, scared or not.

Also, as to hunting deer in the USA: there are several sources that suggest that American Indians cleared underbrush from the forest patches they hunted in order to facilitate hunting. There is also evidence that even prior to white settlers arriving, much of the SE USA was pretty well hunted out for deer.
posted by OmieWise at 10:36 AM on August 19, 2005

Also, in order for any kind of evolution to take place, you generally need a small, isolated population.

Further to my other comment on this, does not more numbers mean more chance for random mutation?

OmieWise, the deer populations in the SE were lower, but not due to overhunting. Old growth forests are not the deer's favorite habitat. They like scrub to hide in. Once the old growth timber was cleared, the lower, brushier woods grew in its place along with the booming deer population (and deer overpopulation related disease like chronic wasting).
posted by Pollomacho at 10:44 AM on August 19, 2005

your question remindes me of this TAL episode in which the main focus is about a guy who was determined to figure out how to "run down" antelope.
posted by quadrinary at 10:49 AM on August 19, 2005

A friend and I were walking through the woods, saw a deer and started pondering our ability to survive with primitive tools. We couldn't get within 40 meters of the deer before it took off.

But you weren't REALLY trying either. Even for primitive man, meat was a luxury, not an every-meal staple. There's also a belief that primitive man was actually much more of a scavenger than first believed. My point being, that you certainly wouldn't wouldn't solely depend on your ability to hunt and kill a full grown deer-sized animal. Smaller, slower, weaker game would be your main focus (as far as meat is concerned).

As a deer hunter, I can tell you that if I HAD to kill a deer without the use of modern weaponry, I'm pretty confident I could still do it. I'm assuming that you would allow the use of a knife-like tool/weapon... sharpened stick or bone, sharp rock, etc.?

I've been perched in a tree not more than 10-12 feet off the ground and had deer, on several occassions, stand directly beneath me... for a long time, perfectly still. Dropping down on one of them would be fairly easy. I agree that there would still be varying degrees of success, but the opportunities would still be there. I've also stalked prey to get close enough to shoot a (modern) bow with deadly accuracy (ooooh aahhhh). Your ability to track a wounded animal would also be a huge factor.

This answer has nothing to do with your evolutionary question, but I'm pretty sure that at least certain groups or individuals (today) could survive and get by with using somewhat primitive methods.
posted by Witty at 10:51 AM on August 19, 2005

Deer can be tamed. In my experiences outdoors, I've noticed that in places where deer aren't hunted (like national parks), they'll get quite close to you or just wander off when they notice you. I've seen deer literally eat out of people's hands in places where they've become used to humans. In parks where they are hunted, they bolt as soon as they know you're around. I'd say it's a learned behavior.

Yes, there are ecosystems where animals are indifferent to humans. When Darwin was in the Galapagos Islands, he wrote of being able to catch birds with his hat. He said a gun was 'almost superfluous' there, having once pushed a hawk off a tree branch with the muzzle of his gun. He caught other birds by grasping their legs. This was because they had evolved with no natural predators. These birds still exist today. The blue-footed booby lays its eggs on a bare patch of ground, without even a nest. Why? Because it evolved without any predators that would eat its eggs. I also think wild penguins are oblivious to humans.

The above examples are from this boox, if you're interested in finding out more.
posted by driveler at 11:03 AM on August 19, 2005

In Monty Roberts' biography The Man Who Listens To Horses, he says his experience suggests that deer are smarter than horses. So perhaps they're smart to the point of local populations actually knowing whether or not the particular humans they're likely to encounter are dangerous...
posted by weston at 11:36 AM on August 19, 2005

I just read about this question in Guns, Germs, and Steel. From your question, this is a book you would enjoy.

Apparently there were many large animals living in the Americas and in Australia that went extinct very soon after the arrival of humans. I'm sure there's still debate going on about the issue, but he implies strongly that this is because the animals were not adapted to fearing humans and the humans wiped them out easily. This is also one of his main points about why humans on those continents didn't advance their civilization as fast as those in Eurasia: After wiping out all the large, docile animals on the continent, they didn't have any large animals left to domesticate. I've probably butchered the argument and of course there's much more to it than that...

He also mentions Antarctica and the Galapagos islands as places with no pre-modern interaction with humans where many species would have been wiped out if conservationist-types hadn't quickly set up protective measures.
posted by jacobsee at 11:52 AM on August 19, 2005

The technical term is Ecological Naivete.

The Galapagos Island, as stated, is full of animals who never had a natural predator, therefore, don't really care if you come close. For instance, birds will alight on your shoulder and the iguanas will allow you to come within arms reach.
posted by eurasian at 1:40 PM on August 19, 2005

I wish I could cite my source -- it was long ago -- but I remember reading about early European explorers in N. America being amazed at 1) the sheer number of animals -- especially large mammals -- they encountered, and 2) the animals' almost complete docility. There were humans obviously then, but maybe in much more balanced numbers?
posted by rleamon at 2:57 PM on August 19, 2005

You could easily fashion a spear or, if you have more time before you must attempt to hunt, an atlatl with only a knife and fire to harden points. Given tool-working tools (flint knapping gear, glass chippers, metal foundries, etc.) you could also build excellent points for these projectiles. But, I would recommend learning to fletch them first (melted hooves from your first kill might make good glue).

I suspect, though, that deer are skittish around just about everything that doesn't smell right.
posted by Netzapper at 3:01 PM on August 19, 2005

In upstate NY I would be an nothing more than an upright cylinder to most animals. Wild Turkeys would walk around me, raccoons would walk up 'til I chased them off, and the smaller animals (squirrels, snakes, fish) just seemed predispositioned to avoid larger animals.
I've had deer walk right up to me before at dusk, in cities (Monterey CA) and in the wilds (NY). I think it has to do with exposure as you hypothesized.
posted by buzzman at 3:03 PM on August 19, 2005

From an evolutionary standpoint you are looking at the deer as a drive in meal. Humans have a unique capability called endurance (watch iron man or marathon runners an hour into the chase - they are energized). If you and 2 friends chose to take a couple of hours you could run the deer to exhaustion and kill it with a rock. Most speed animals have little endurance. Pack hunting forces them to exhaust themselves in spurts with the constant pressure of perceived danger. Exhaustion is deadly.
posted by ptm at 9:38 PM on August 19, 2005

I have a bunch of thoughts, but meh, the one will do, I guess. I'll add this though, don't read Guns, Germs, and Steel to try to understand evolution. There are too many flaws in his presentation (and in my opinion logic, but hey, that's another story). I base this on my experience marking papers that used GG&S as a primary source. A lot of (and often profound) misunderstandings come from using it. If you want deer evolution, Vrba is *the* source. For more accessible reading on evolutionary processes, I recommend Steven J. Gould.

So here's the one thought: Mammals have relatively large brains, and even relatively "stupid" mammals have the capacity for some learning. A better evolutionary hypothesis about deer might be that they have evolved the ability to learn which animals in a given region are a threat to them and act accordingly. This would allow them to change their behaviour in their own lifetime and likely mean that such specifically evolved responses such as the one you propose were not necessary. That is, deer probably have the ability to associate an attack from an individual with that individual's species and to learn from that attack that they should avoid the species. This would be far more useful than having to evolve a specific response to each predator, and (I think) is probably one of the reasons (as an effect, of course, not a cause) that mammals developed bigger brains and better learning skills.
posted by carmen at 5:47 AM on August 20, 2005

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