Two years ago, a team of researchers at Auburn University constructed a deer research facility within the boundary of the Piedmont Agricultural Experiment Station, near Camp Hill, in an effort to learn more about whitetail deer behavior and reproduction.
The team of researchers was led by Dr. Steve Ditchkoff, the visionary behind the research facility, who has been studying whitetail deer for many years. Ditchkoff began raising money for the facility four years prior to opening it. Through private donations and the help of individuals, the 430-acre enclosed research facility came to be in October 2007.
The facility contains an assortment of habitats including old pastures, hardwood uplands and bottomlands, planted pines and recent clear cuts that are naturally regenerating. A large creek runs through the property which provides water for the animals — even during the driest periods of the year. Various food plots are planted at the facility with different warm and cool-season forages to supplement naturally available foods.
"We wanted to be able to develop a deer research facility where we had intimate knowledge of every deer in the population, but we simulated a free-ranging population," Ditchkoff said about the deer lab. "Our goal for the lab is to develop a research environment where we have the ability to gain intimate knowledge of each individual in the population throughout their entire life while also maintaining ‘natural’ behavior."
Whitetail deer are the most studied wildlife species in North America. The whitetail deer has been studied for more than a century, but surprisingly there are still many questions going unanswered about the species so popular to hunters in the South.
"Generally there are three types of deer research done today," Ditchkoff explained.
"One of them is with deer pens—little one or two acre pens," Ditchkoff said. "They are great for having absolute control of your study animals, but they are not realistic from a behavior perspective. So you can’t answer a lot of questions about management and ecology."
The other commonly used research method is free-ranging animals. The animals are tracked by radio collars and are followed by an antenna. With this method the researcher knows where the deer goes for the most part, but nothing more.
"By using the radio collars, we can’t know everywhere it goes or how it dies," Ditchkoff explained. "So with this we don’t get the experimental control we would like."
"The third type is when you get hunter-harvested animals where you draw blood from the animal and that sort of thing," Ditchkoff said about the final commonly used method of research.
"The intent of the deer research facility is to try and combine the best of both worlds," Ditchkoff explained. "We want to be able to know every animal in the population but still have a free-range setting to study realistic behavior.
"We still do not know which males do the breeding. Or we don’t have the factors that drive high breeding success."
Throughout the years, people, mostly experienced hunters, have made several assumptions as to which male deer is most successful in reproduction based mostly on their own ideas and experience.
"There is no real data out there that has been documented with it, so nobody really knows what animals do the breeding," Ditchkoff said. "Yet we make lots of decisions as managers based upon assumptions that we have."
"Is it the largest male? Is the one with the biggest antlers, or the widest antlers or the tallest antlers? Is it the one with the highest testosterone levels or the oldest males," Ditchkoff questioned. "What factors drive these things? That’s what we are hoping to find out with this facility."
Right now there are about 80 animals in the deer research facility. Ditchkoff hopes to have the number up around 100 animals soon—about 50 males and 50 females.
"We didn’t bring in any external genetics to the facility," Ditchkoff said about the deer. "When we closed the gates we used what deer were in there."
The deer are recruited in the population naturally and die naturally in the facility. Data is collected and recorded on each animal, which is identified by a freeze brand on the shoulder and hip of the deer.
"We want to catch every animal in the population every year, which is probably unrealistic, but if we can get our hands on 60 or 70 percent every year, then over time we end up capturing every individual," Ditchkoff said. "We pull a tissue sample of the animal, which allows us to determine who the mom and the dad is. This helps us determine which animals do the breeding."
The research program and facility is largely dependent upon financial support from private individuals and organizations. Several individuals help to make the study of whitetail deer at the Auburn University deer research facility possible through physical labor and monetary donations.
"The feed for our facility is donated by SouthFresh Feeds which is near Demopolis," Ditchkoff said. "They have been gracious enough to assist with delivery of the feed. This assistance with feed delivery saves us considerable amounts of money each year."
Mary-Glenn Smith is an AFC intern.