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Why deer become less social as they get older

The findings show that as female deer grow older, they begin to interact with fewer other individuals within their home ranges.

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A cute brown roe deer in the meadow during the daytime
(Oakland Images via Shutterstock)

By Stephen Beech via SWNS

Lonely old deers become less social in later life, according to a new study.

A new social network analysis of female wild red deer on the Isle of Rum in Scotland shows that aging ones tend to adopt a life of solitude in their advancing years.

The study was led by researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh.

Lead author Dr. Greg Albery, of Oxford's Department of Biology, said: ‘We found that deer’s social networks shrink as they grow old and begin associating less with others.

"This ‘social aging’ appears to be driven by older individuals choosing to live in more isolated locations and engaging with fewer other deer within these sparser areas."

Albery said that building a general understanding of how individuals change their social behavior as they age is useful for research across many different species, including humans.

He explained that such research sheds new light on the consequences of deterioration with age, as well as potentially providing insights into how societal structure and function might change as the population ages.

The team applied new social network analysis methods to a large, 46-year-long, dataset made up of more than 200,000 census observations of over 3,500 female deer throughout their lifetimes.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, show that as female deer grow older, they begin to interact with fewer other individuals within their home ranges. They also shift their locations to less populated areas of their habitat.

Alongside becoming less central in the social network, older females were generally found with smaller home ranges, farther from the center of the population, in areas of lower density, and with lower-quality grazing.

Study senior author Dr. Josh Firth, also of Oxford University, said: "This new evidence of social aging in the wild shows the value of long-term datasets.

white-tailed deer cub Glacier National Park, Montana
(Photo by Greens and Blues via Shutterstock)

"By tracking many individuals simultaneously over their entire lives, we can understand how and why their social associations with one another change over time."

He said that while earlier work has shown that older wild animals in other species may be less sociable than younger animals, it was previously difficult to determine whether this was due to demographic changes or to more sociable individuals dying sooner.

However, using the long-term dataset, the new research shows that social aging happens at the individual level, where individuals actively become less sociable throughout their lives.

The researchers said that their findings also highlights that further work is now needed to understand exactly why aging deer become less social.

They suggest that social aging may be due to a combination of many factors - such as moving to areas that are easier for older individuals to forage in or changing their behavior to become more socially selective in their relationships with other deer.

Albery added: "Combining social networks with spatial location data allowed us to disentangle the potential causes of these age-related declines in social behavior, and to show how individuals change their behavior throughout their lives."

The researchers now hope that bringing scientific approaches to other long-term data sets of wild animals will help generate a broader view of the fundamental rules that may govern aging and social behavior in natural populations.

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