Female elk are able to learn when hunters are using either rifles or bows, and as a result, alter their behavior to make it harder for the hunters to get their shot.
As one of the largest species of deer, the main predator of elk is humans. If you see an old animal, then the odds are it will be female, as the males rarely make it past five years of age, as they are often shot for their antlers. But it seems that the older the females get, the better they become at avoiding humans and their weapons, and when they reach around 10 years of age, they are nearly invulnerable from human hunters.
The researchers wanted to clarify whether the survival of female elk was being driven due to the selective hunting by humans – in which the boldest animals are most likely to be killed while the reclusive ones more likely to survive – or if they are showing adaptive responses and learning over time to temper their outgoing behavior.
By tagging dozens of female elk of a wide range of ages in Canda, and following them over a period of a few years, the researchers studied how they moved through the environment, and how this changed with time. Published in PLOS ONE, their findings showed that while the selective pressure from hunters was impacting the animals, there was also a learning aspect to their movements.