Himalayan musk deer talk to each other through feces, but poachers listen, too

  • A new study shows scientists what poachers in Nepal may have known for a long time: that Himalayan musk deer use their defecation sites as a kind of message board to communicate with each other.
  • The critically endangered species is usually solitary and has limited vocalization, but their varied behaviors at latrine sites — defecating, searching, sniffing, scrapping and covering, and ignoring — seem to show efforts to convey messages to the other deer using the sites .
  • Poachers may have known of this behavior for a long time and accordingly set their traps near latrine sites where they target the male deer for their scent glands – valued for making perfume and traditional medicine.
  • The authors of the new study say this finding could help improve conservation activities, including ensuring mating success for captive breeding.

KATHMANDU — On April 25, 2020, barely a month after the country entered the COVID-19 lockdown, authorities at Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park reported “one of the worst cases of poaching in recent years”: six Himalayan musk deer (Musk leucogaster) found killed by poachers.

Officials at the park, which sits in the foothills of Everest, said they believe poachers removed the scent gland from one of the male deer. The Himalayan musk deer, commonly known as Kasturi in South Asia, is an endangered species in the region. The scent glands, or pods, of bucks have long been sought after for making perfume and traditional medicine, and can fetch hundreds of dollars.

The animals come out only at dawn, dusk and night and make limited sounds. But they are easy targets for poachers, who rely on traditional knowledge of the species – something researchers have only recently come to understand – to locate and capture the animals.

One such finding is that latrine sites where the deer defecate hold special significance for the species.

“Himalayan musk deer are very loyal to their latrine sites. They rarely defecate outside their latrine,” said Paras Bikram Singh, lead author of a Recent study how the deer use their latrine for communication. According to the newspaper, musk deer were found sniffing around the latrine, even when it was covered in snow.

Poachers understand this connection and set their traps next to these sites.

Musk Deer, from the genus musk, are found in densely forested areas in the alpine zones of Asia. Their numbers have declined sharply across much of their natural range due to poaching for the musk fruit, with six of the seven species, including the Himalayan musk deer, listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.

Until recently, latrine sites located on or near forest trails were believed to be limited to their scenting behavior (male deer emit a peculiar odor from their herd that is thought to attract females). But the study, led by Singh, suggests that loners who have limited vocal abilities may be using their feces to communicate with other members of their own kind.

The research began when Singh and his team set up camera traps in Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area to record the behavior of these animals at their known latrine sites. After the cameras were up and running, Singh and his colleagues recorded behaviors such as defecating, searching, sniffing, scrapping and covering, and ignoring, and matched each instance to the sex of each musk deer. They recorded a total of 428 musk deer visits and a total of 479 musk deer behaviors between May 1 and July 29, 2016 (non-breeding season) and October 1 and December 29, 2016 (breeding season).

The team found that both solitary male and female deer repeatedly visited shared latrine sites as well as sites used exclusively by other deer. Male musk deer visited their latrine more frequently than females in both seasons.

The most commonly observed behaviors at the latrine sites were defecation, sniffing, and searching, followed by scrapping and covering, and ignoring the latrine sites. The defecation and sniffing activities were carried out both during the breeding season and outside of the breeding season.

Based on behaviors observed at the latrine sites and studies on other species – distantly related African antelopes such as Oribis (Ourebia ourebi), bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), dik-diks (Madoqua Kirkii) and klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus) and black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) and great one-horned rhinos (Rhino Unicorn) — the team concluded that Himalayan musk deer likely use latrine locations to convey various messages, including those about personality, maturity, sexual status, and territorial markings.

A screenshot from video captured by a camera trap used to study Himalayan musk deer in Nepal.

“It’s quite interesting to see from the research that the deer form a kind of social network using their latrine,” said Narayan Prasad Koju, a wildlife ecologist who wasn’t involved with the research. “But I’m not surprised by the results, as research on cat family animals shows [those] Animals use their feces as a means of communication.”

Another interesting finding, Koju said, is the variation in latrine visits during breeding and non-breeding seasons. “That the number of visits by both male and female deer to their latrine sites has decreased during breeding season compared to non-breeding season requires further investigation,” he said. “It could be that the deer leave their usual territory during the breeding season.”

The researchers say their findings have broader implications for the conservation of Himalayan musk deer, which are mostly restricted to protected areas in Nepal.

“In the past, poachers could distinguish between latrine locations of male and female Himalayan musk deer and only set snares for males if they were carrying the prized pod,” Singh said. “However, this knowledge appears to have been lost, and people make snares for deer regardless of their gender, adding to the challenge of conserving them.”

The paper supports the idea of ​​breeding the deer in captivity while protecting them in the wild. “Information about the behavior of the animals is the most important prerequisite for the success of a captive breeding program,” it says. “Knowing the function and mechanism of the latrines used by the musk deer can be helpful in activating mating and maintaining the welfare of the animals in captivity.”

It also notes that understanding latrine locations, chemical signals, and animal behavior can support and enhance conservation disciplines such as patrolling, habitat management, reintroduction, conservation agriculture, and wildlife research.

“Poachers are better scientists than those who study these animals because they have a better knowledge of animal behavior,” Koju said. “They know how and where to find these musk deer to remove their pods. We cannot change the deer’s latrine behavior, even if it will make them vulnerable to poaching. Therefore, we need to increase law enforcement efforts and programs to raise awareness about their protection.”

Banner image: A Himalayan Musk Deer in Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal. Image courtesy of the Nepal Tourism Board.

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Singh PB, Saud P, Jiang Z, Zhou Z, Hu Y, & Hu H (2022). Himalayan Musk Deer (musk leukogaster) Behavior at latrine sites and their impact on conservation. ecology and evolution, 12(4). doi:10.1002/ece3.8772


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