North Florida Deer Study

  • A white-tailed deer fawn walks by one of the trail cameras of the study. Biologists can use the spot patterns to uniquely identify them and estimate recruitment.       
  • One of the captured deer with unique piebald coloring. Piebaldism is a rare, recessive trait that occurs in less than 2% of deer.
  • Buck fitted with a GPS-collar and unique ear-tags captured on a trail camera.   Combination of collar and camera data inform the spatial-capture-recapture models. 
  • Biologists collecting data from an immobilized white-tailed deer. 
  • Trail cameras also provide important information on other species in the study area, including deer predators like this bobcat. 

As with many states in the Eastern U.S., white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are an important terrestrial mammal for woodland ecosystems, as well as a vital game species for Florida hunters. Following a successful study in south Florida, which provided a wealth of information on deer ecology and population dynamics, the decision was made to initiate a North Florida Deer Study (NFDS), which began in January 2020 and is set to last 5 years. The main objectives of the NFDS are to estimate adult deer survival, to assess cause-specific mortality, to describe space use (movement, habitat use, response to disturbance, etc.) using GPS collars and to estimate population density and abundance using a combination of trail cameras and GPS collars.

As part of this study, biologists will also investigate how hunting, habitat management practices such as prescribed fire and predators impact deer populations, including stress and recruitment (the process by which new individuals are added to a population, whether by birth or by immigration). The project provides tools for science-based management, including a better understanding of how habitat management practices and specific hunting methods can impact deer populations. Deer are one of the most popular game species in Florida and a valued resource for non-hunters as well. Although the key species in this study is deer, camera surveys can provide information on other wildlife species. For example, the camera data from South Florida has been used in other projects, including a multi-state evaluation of mesomammals (any medium-size mammal larger than a rodent but smaller than a bear).

Much was learned from the recently completed South Florida Deer Study (SFDS) that informed this current project. Several of the methods developed during the SFDS, including the camera-based surveys, can guide deer management throughout Florida. However, demographic parameters such as adult survival, fawn recruitment, and potential impacts of habitat management, predators and diseases on deer are typically site-specific, and results cannot easily be extrapolated outside of south Florida. In north Florida, demographic data are currently lacking or date back several decades. In addition, very little is known about the details of deer habitat use and movement patterns in north Florida. Moreover, the poor productivity soils in north Florida may make deer populations particularly sensitive to habitat management practices and stressors associated with predators and human activity.

For managers, this project will provide information on monitoring methods and how specific management practices can benefit deer. Information on movement, home-range size and detection rates are valuable from disease management perspective. Survival and recruitment data provide key information for population models.

The two main methods of research on this project include use of GPS collars to monitor deer movement, habitat use and survival, and remote sensing trail cameras to evaluate deer and other wildlife activity and to estimate fawn recruitment. GPS collars and cameras together will be used to estimate deer population density and abundance. Population density estimates will also be derived using distance sampling methods using both spotlights and a forward looking infrared (FLIR) unit. These methods will be used in both hunted and unhunted populations, across different habitat types and management regimes.

It is important to note that this project is still in its early days, as it only began in January 2020, and some of the subsequent work was delayed due to the COVID pandemic. The next step in the project is to begin a new study site at Osceola Wildlife Management Area (WMA). This will provide biologists an area where deer are exposed to very different stresses, including deer hunting and hunting of other game with dogs, potentially impacting deer indirectly. FWC researchers will continue to monitor deer survival and are currently conducting a variety of population surveys to compare several methods. By partnering with University of Florida and bringing in a PhD student, biologists are expanding this project further, which will continue through 2026.

Although the NFDS is still in the beginning days of the study, some interesting findings have already been noted. FWC biologists documented 2 cases where alligators killed deer and one additional incident where a deer was eaten by an alligator (it is unclear if the deer was killed by one). Although alligators have been documented to kill fawns and in South Florida have been documented to kill adult deer, alligator predation is relatively rare and researchers were surprised how often their "terrestrial mammal" work ended up involving canoes! The biologists also had an interesting capture event where they darted and radio-collared a piebald buck. Piebaldism is rare, occurring in less than 2% of deer. It is a recessive genetic trait, meaning both parents of this buck had to carry the gene. Because the same genetic code for coat color impacts other traits, piebald deer may have issues, such as “roman nose”, shortened lower jaw, curved backbone (scoliosis) and short/deformed legs. The piebald buck captured in this study appears healthy, however, thus far his home-range is considerably smaller than any other collared buck and even smaller than most female deer.

Once the field work is completed, the next steps will be to complete manuscripts, reports and other documents (e.g., monitoring guidelines). From the initial concept to drafting specific objectives, FWC researchers and biologists have collaborated with managers, particularly with WMA biologists. This research addresses several objectives of the 10 Year Deer Management Plan and will provide key information for Florida's deer and habitat managers and the broader public interested in deer. Monitoring techniques evaluated in this study can provide guidelines for deer surveys beyond Florida.

The FWRI groups involved with this project are the Terrestrial Mammals Research section and Fish and Wildlife Health. The project is funded by Division of Hunting and Game Management (HGM), using Deer Permit funds. Key partners include HGM deer biologists, Osceola Wildlife Management Area biologists and University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation researchers.