. Scientific Frontline: Red Deer Natural Habitat Recreated Over the Past 50,000 Years

Monday, March 6, 2023

Red Deer Natural Habitat Recreated Over the Past 50,000 Years

During the period of global cooling (33,000 years ago), the range of the species declined and reached a minimum of around
Photo Credit: Alexis B

The natural habitat of the European Red deer over the last 50,000 years has been recreated and described by a team of scientists from Russia, Poland, Ukraine, the UK and Italy. An article summarizing the research has been published in The Journal of Archaeological Science.

The details of how reindeer ecology changed with climate warming during the Pleistocene to Holocene transition allow an assessment of the species' adaptive capacity. As reindeer have been widespread in Europe for tens of thousands of years, the data can be used for the study of human life and diet in this part of the world since the Late Pleistocene.

"At the beginning of the study period, the European Red deer tended to feed on plants inherent to open landscapes such as tundra, steppe, and meadows. During this stage, particularly with the maximum cold snap, 26-19 thousand years ago, the Red deer, as well as their ungulate neighbors (the reindeer and horses), were affected by prolonged low temperatures and lack of nutrients. The exception included some territories of modern Spain and Italy," says Pavel Kosintsev, Head Specialist of the UrFU Laboratory of Natural Science Methods in Humanities, Senior Researcher of the Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Ural Branch), and co-author of the article.

However, the post-glacial warming that began about 12,000 years ago, along with increased rainfall and expanding forests, led the Red deer to choose moist, shady, cool and nutritious coniferous, broadleaved and mixed forests as their habitat. In terms of diet, they switched to the edible parts of the trees and shrubs that were available in the forests.

Later, the Red deer moved deeper into the forest due to the growing human population, increased human hunting, large-scale deforestation and the development of agriculture, which began about 4,000 years ago. By the way, other large species of ungulates - the European bison, the wisent, the elk have undergone similar changes. But even deep in the forest, deer had a preference for food in the clearings.

"Overall, the range of the European Red deer has not changed much over the years. However, its closely related species, the Wapiti, which originally also inhabited south-eastern Europe, the Urals and north-eastern Asia, responded to climate change at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary by migrating to North America. Today, European Red deer also inhabit more forested areas, where they are protected from increasing human pressure," says Kosintsev.

This is the conclusion of an international team of scientists after analysis of the isotopic composition of bone collagen in about a hundred skeletal fragments from both species. The bone samples belong to periods both before and after the peak of the last Ice Age. The fossils have previously been found in different areas of middle, south and east Europe, the Urals, west and east Siberia and other areas of Asia.

"By eating this or that animal, humans assimilate its isotopes. It is known that European Red deer have been the subject of hunting since ancient times, both in the Pleistocene and in the Holocene. With the determination of the Red deer isotope levels in ancient human remains, it is possible to better reconstruct their way of life at different times and in different regions. This will be the subject of further research," concludes Pavel Kosintsev.

Reference: The Red deer is one of the most widespread ungulates in the Northern Hemisphere. It originated in southwestern Siberia and Central Asia about 7 million years ago, facilitated by the extensive distribution of herbaceous plants. In the late Early Pleistocene (about 0.8 million years ago), the Red deer appeared in south-western Siberia. Later, in the Middle Pleistocene - in Europe, and in the Late Pleistocene, about 54-34 thousand years BC, it appeared almost all over Europe, from the Atlantic coast to the Urals.

During the global cooling that started 33 thousand years ago, the range of the species decreased and reached a minimum during the last glacial maximum (26 - 19 thousand years ago). During this period, the Red deer lived in the Pyrenees, the Apennines, the Balkans, Western Europe, the Carpathian Mountains and in the vicinity of the Black Sea. As the climate warmed, populations of the Red deer re-colonized the northern and north-eastern parts of the European continent.

Today, the Red deer can be found throughout most of Europe, with the exception of Scandinavia, Finland and European Russia, inhabiting not only lowland forests (their most suitable habitat), but also mountainous areas, including highlands, and open areas - usually in regions with cool and dry climates.

Their diet consists of edible parts of trees and bushes, grasses and sedges. The main foods are branches and bark of conifers, fruits and leaves of deciduous trees, heather, weeds, seeds, forest berries - lingonberries, bilberries, cranberries, blackberries, blueberries.

Published in journalJournal of Archaeological Science

Source/CreditUral Federal University

Reference Number: es030623_01

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