When a male fallow deer wants to mate, he isn't shy about letting everyone around him know. The males, also called fallow bucks, can produce their mating calls as many as 3,000 times each hour during the mating season. Those calls serve two functions: to attract females and to deter rival males. Yet there is more hidden in the groans of fallow bucks than first meets the ear, according to a new study in Behavioral Ecology.
Every October around 25 bucks gather in Petworth Park in England's county of West Sussex, where each stakes out a territory, hoping to entice a female at a feral conclave of romance, combat and deer calling, an event known as a lek. “Leks are really rare in mammals, and they're really rare in ungulates. Fallow deer are the only species of deer that we know that lek,” says Alan McElligott of Queen Mary, University of London, who oversaw the study.
Mating calls reveal information about the caller, such as body size or dominance rank, which is useful both to interested females and to rival males—and every conceivable type of fallow deer utterance turns up at the lek. In one study, McElligott found that the quality of groans decreased over time. “The mature bucks stop eating for a couple of weeks,” over the course of the lek, McElligott explains, so “they are really worn out.”
That fatigue is reflected in their calls, but do other males notice? Because the lek is such a spectacle, the deer in Petworth Park are accustomed to human interlopers, which allowed Queen Mary postdoctoral scholar Benjamin J. Pitcher to cart a sound system around without interrupting the festivities.
Broadcasting prerecorded calls, he discovered that deer can distinguish those made early in mating season, when males are still healthy, from those made later, once they are fatigued. If a rival male sounds exhausted, it might be worth trying to displace him from his territory. If a subordinate male is to challenge a dominant one, it is best to be sure that he can actually win.