One of the more engaging presentations at the Deer Biology Congress was a study of aggressive behavior in red deer stags. There were videos to watch which always elevates the entertainment value.
Mammalian brains partition trained behavior and aggression. The left hemisphere handles trained behavior while the right controls aggression.
When establishing dominance, do male stags use their left or right brain?
This is not an easy question to answer but there is a way to investigate which side controls this all-important social behavior. Animals generally show a left-eye bias in aggressive interactions due to aggression being controlled by the right hemisphere.
In elk (or any deer species that institutes a social hierarchy), there is plenty of opportunity to learn aggressive behavior over time so interactions could become ritualized as a learned behavior. Since they lose their antlers every year, perhaps it would be better to “learn” aggressive behavior so when antlers are dropped or growing there is less chance of injury.
Back to the red deer stags. Data showed that older, dominant males didn’t show a preference for either side. They were just bigger and dealt with subordinates accordingly. Younger males that initiated aggression tended to attack from the left.
The conclusion of the researchers from the Czech Republic was that aggressive behavior in red deer is not learned – mostly just a “spontaneous manifestation of aggression.”
Should we be surprised?
Duane Diefenbach, Chief Foreign Cervid Correspondent
Jeannine Fleegle, National Cervid News Desk Anchor