, Volume 127, Issue 2, pp 191-197

First online:

Antler length of yearling red deer is determined by population density, weather and early life-history

  • K.T. SchmidtAffiliated withResearch Institute of Wildlife Ecology, University of Veterinary Medicine, Savoyenstrasse 1, 1160 Vienna, Austria
  • , A. StienAffiliated withCentre for Ecology and Hydrology Banchory, Hill of Brathens, Glassel, Banchory, AB31 4BY, UK
  • , S.D. AlbonAffiliated withCentre for Ecology and Hydrology Banchory, Hill of Brathens, Glassel, Banchory, AB31 4BY, UK
  • , F.E. GuinnessAffiliated withLarge Animal Research Group, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3EJ, UK

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In red deer, yearling antler length is a largely nutrition-mediated phenotypic character, and is therefore sometimes used as an indirect estimate of range quality and population condition. However, the parameters affecting yearling antler length have been little studied. We analyse the contributions of density, weather and maternal effects on yearling antler length of 581 individual stags born 1970–1996 on the Isle of Rum (Scotland). We show that antler length is a good measure of yearling condition: the probability of overwinter survival in yearlings that developed antlers was 3 times higher than for yearlings that did not develop antlers, and yearling antler length was correlated with the number of antler points the following year. Between years, variation in yearling antler length was best explained by variation in red deer density and June temperature at 12 months of age. Both of these variables were negatively correlated with antler length, and most likely this effect is due to changes in nutrient availability. Population density affects biomass availability for the individual, while low temperatures in early summer prolong the availability of high forage quality. At the individual level, antler length increased with birth weight and decreased with birth date, reflecting the persistent and pervasive influence of conditions in early life.

Cervus elaphus Density dependence Birth date Birth weight Viability indicator