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Did this red deer calf die last winter ?


This weekend I am at my uncle's wedding, so I am going to write about a walk that I did last weekend. Dad and I went up to Suicides Graves where we have been doing lots of stalking the red deer and hoping to spot stags that come into the woods for the rut. We saw four groups of red deer (and a red kite) but the most interesting thing was not alive at all.

We had worked all the way through the wood to a clearing at the south-west corner of the wood when I spotted some bones at the edge of the wood next to the clearing. They were the bones of a young  red deer hind (female) and they were scattered about as if foxes had pulled the body apart.

If you find a skeleton like this the skull is the most useful bone. It will help tell you how old it is, what type of animal it is, and sometimes (especially for some deer) whether it is male or female. It is the best bone to start with. This skull was mostly intact bit the bones at the tip of the nose and on top of the snout were missing. This often happens with young deer because the bones haven't joined properly yet.

I knew straight away it was a red deer hind (female) because of the size and it didn't have any pedicles (the bit of bones that the antlers grow on). In almost all deer, the males have antlers and the females don't, except reindeer (both have antlers) and Chinese water deer (neither have antlers).

There was no soft tissue left, and the bone was white, rather than brown or dark green. If bones are really old they can go brown or completely dark green, but it depends where the bones are lying. This skeleton was lying in a dry pine wood. Just from the bones I guess the animal might have died in the last two or three years, but longer. I walked through this wood and not seen the skeleton before since then though, so I guessed it hadn't been longer than a year.

The lower jaws we lying nearby with a small amount of light green on them.

There were still two of the incisors (technically the left one is really a canine, but it's called incisiform which means "looks like an incisor). 

There were four cheek teeth through. (there were actually 16 cheek teeth in total, four on each side and top and bottom, but by four through I mean four different types of cheek teeth). From left to right they are called M1 (molar one), pm3 (baby premolar, with three cusps or 'spikes'), pm2 (baby premolar) and pm1. Scientists give adult teeth a capital letter, and baby/milk with lower case). The other molars, M2 and M3 haven't come through yet.

Because the teeth were still coming through, that makes it easy to work out the age of the deer if you use the guide I wrote in February to working out the age of roe and red deer from their teeth. Because it only has pm1, pm2, pm3 and M1 it means it is aged 4-6 months. The next tooth, M2, doesn't come through until about 12 months old.

Baby red deer are born in late May and early June, so this means this deer would have been born in May/June 2011 and died sometime between late October and early December 2011.

That reminded Dad of a young calf he saw last summer very close to this part of the wood. He watched it a few times. This is it in August 2011, next to the fence that runs to the south of this wood. It would have been about two months old here.

He photographed it with its mother here. The wood is on the left of the fence and the fields are on the right.

 The mother got spooked and jumped the fence but the calf was stuck in the field.

It was too small to jump the fence here. Deer sometimes measure fences by standing on hind legs to see if their head can get over. If so they can usually jump it. But this calf didn't try, and every time Dad came bac to the field the calf looked like it was alone in the field. He wondered whether it had got stuck.

There was another clue as to when it died which was the pile of grey fur. In summer red deer have a nice bright red coat which turns to a ugly greyish in winter. So when this deer died was in winter which means that together with the information from the teeth it must have died in November or December.

Although the parts of the skeleton had been pulled apart they were still in groups. This was the spine at the shoulders and ribs:

This the left front leg, with the ulna (top left), radius (top right), humerus (bottom left) and metacarpal (bottom right).

You can tell that it's young because the ends of the bones haven't properly fused yet, meaning the deer was still growing. This is the top of the humerus where it meets the shoulderblade.

This is the same on the radius:

This is the left femur (top back leg bone) where both ends were loose:

This is the pelvis. In young deer, the pelvis is in four parts. When they become adults, the vertical cracks over the hip joint fuse together, so adult pelvises are in two parts. In old deer they fuse down the horizontal line on the right, so the pelvis is in one part.

There are even still cracks on the atlas, which the top bone on the spine, which is next to the skull.

On young deer the whole bottom part of the braincase (back of the skull) is very loose and not yet fused. I don't know exactly when it fuses but have a skull from a ten-month old red deer hind (Dixie) where the bottom of the braincase is still loose.

These two cracks under the skull are visible in young deer as well. In young deer you can see both as cracks, in adult deer the top one fuses first, and in old deer both have fused.

I've left this skeleton in the wood because I already have a ten-month old hind skeleton, and it's important to leave bones in the wood for deer and rodents to chew on to get calcium.

A lot of red deer calves die in their first year. This study says 18% die by the age of four months, and 29% are dead by the time they are seven months old. Last winter wasn't a bad winter but it wasn't a warm one either. I will never know whether the skeleton I found was from the same calf but I think it probably was because there were no other calves in this part of the wood last year. It's sad to think that any baby deer has died but it's all part of how nature works.

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Jack N said...

Cool find and good detective work.I reckon my sika was killed about a year ago.

Psydrache said...

Awww, that baby deer looks so cute. It's sad that it is possibly dead now.
This was an interesting story and your guide about teeth, jaws and age of a deer is very helpful. We have some deers here too, but they are high above in the mountain forest, so you don't see them.

Kat said...

Great find! I haven't been too lucky lately with my walks. Loved how you showed all the bones and not just the skull!

Jake said...

Thanks everyone ! It was a sad find.

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