What could be more familiar than mule deer, an iconic species of North America? But scientists have recently learned something new: Mule deer engage in a great twice-yearly migration, the longest of any mammal in the Lower 48 States. “Each spring, an estimated 500 of the mule deer leave Wyoming’s Red Desert and follow the snowmelt north. After about 50 miles (80 kilometers), they merge with 4,000 to 5,000 mule deer that winter in the foothills of the Wind River Range. Then the whole group follows a narrow corridor about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north to northwestern Wyoming, to the Hoback Basin and high mountains near Hoback Junction, just south of the world-famous valley of Jackson Hole. There, the deer spend the summer, [and walk back south in the fall.]”
The deer must overcome “obstacles include roads, rivers, and about a hundred fences that the deer had to jump over, wiggle under, or walk around. The most stressful obstacles for the deer appeared to be four reservoirs that they had to swim across… [and] would likely spread out farther south into the Red Desert in winter if they weren’t stopped by Interstate 80, which serves as a ‘total barrier.'” Apparently no one had noticed this migration because mule deer are ubiquitous; there are mulies everywhere all year round. Until scientists followed individuals with GPS-enabled radio collars, no one noticed this migration.
“An added benefit to recording the deer’s long migration was learning more about their vocalizations. ‘I never heard deer talk to each other before,’ [the researcher] says. ‘But with the remote video cameras, we observed that they are obviously communicating with each other.'” The familiar mulies seem to be more complex and probably smarter than we give them credit for.
Now that we understand the mulies better, their migration route can be protected and they can continue to prosper. What a delight to learn something profoundly important about the deer we thought we knew so well.
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