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Ontogeny and Adaptiveness of Tail-Flagging Behavior in White-Tailed Deer

Winston Paul Smith
The American Naturalist
Vol. 138, No. 1 (Jul., 1991), pp. 190-200
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2462539
Page Count: 11
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Ontogeny and Adaptiveness of Tail-Flagging Behavior in White-Tailed Deer
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Abstract

I observed white-tailed deer use two tactics to avoid predation: freeze behavior to avoid detection, and flight, during which deer frequently flagged their tails. Remaining motionless increased in use with increasing vegetative cover and occurred less often among larger groups. Tail flagging was observed in all age and sex groups, even neonates within hours after birth. The tendency to tail flag was greatest among fawns. As fawns became older, tail flagging decreased so that by 7 mo of age they tail flagged at a rate similar to that of yearlings and adults. Does tail flagged more often than bucks. For all deer, tail flagging increased as distance from escape cover increased. If deer fled while in cover, their tendency to tail flag increased with amount of vegetative cover. Single deer tail flagged more often than deer in groups. My observations suggest that white-tailed deer evaluate each encounter with a predator according to the nature of their immediate environment. My data do not support the hypothesis that tail flagging is directed at the predator. Instead, tail flagging appears to be an innate, conspecific signal that reduces predation through group cohesion. I suggest that the behavior evolved as part of continued and intense doe-fawn interactions. Fawns decrease the risk of predation by becoming a part of a group in flight; they benefit further by accompanying adults, who are more experienced deer. Tail-flagging behavior may have a secondary adaptive value as a general risk-free alarm signal.

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