Researchers have long been stumped as to why female elk seem to live up to four times longer in the wild than male elk do, and a new study is finally shedding some light on what exactly leads to these astonishing numbers.
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Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers led by Dr Henrik Thurfjell from the University of Alberta, Canada describe how female elk become wiser as they age, learning tactics to avoid becoming hunted by people during hunting season.
To learn more, Thurfjell and his team spent almost six years tracking a population of 49 female elk with attachable GPS units to learn more about female elk behavior and their movement patterns. With this, the researchers were able to see how they were navigating the wild to avoid being hunted.
What they found was that the creatures seem to learn new ways to avoid hunters’ crosshairs as they get older and more experienced. Even at a very young age, their knowledge grows expnentially as they learn from others' mistakes.
In many cases, the female elk were observed staying within the tree cover of dense forests, utilizing more rugged terrains, and avoiding unprotected regions near roads when traveling.
The creatures also learned to select the proper terrain based on what kinds of weapons humans were using to hunt them. Not only would they avoid moving as much during hunting season, but they used rugged terrains to deter hunters using bows and stayed away from open roads to avoid hunters using guns.
It was effective because bow hunters need to get closer to their game to get a good shot, which isn’t feasible when you’re climbing around in unsafe terrain. Rifle users, on the other hand, can see their game through scopes from hundreds of meters away, so open pastures are rifle users’ best friend.
Some of the elks’ road avoidance can be attributed to road density and traffic volume, both of which are known to deter wild animals, but more activity on roads in the middle of nowhere is a sign to the animals that hunting season is about, and it alerts them to be more cautious.
So how about those male elk; why are aren’t they living as long as the females are?
It comes down to their intelligence as well as hunter preference. Hunters much prefer taking down males instead of females because they’re often larger and result in better portions. On the other hand, male elk also aren’t as witty as female elk, which may describe why female elk live up to four times longer than males do.
It’s very likely that elk aren’t the only creatures in the wild that are smart enough to deter hunters, but this study doesn’t touch on any other creatures. More research and tracking data could help us learn the strategies other kinds of animals are using to avoid being hunted.
Source: New York Times