DNA detective work sheds light on origin of iconic deer species

A team of wildlife super-sleuths from international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and the Natural History Museum have used ancient DNA analysis to reveal exciting new insights into one of the few contemporary mammal species currently classified as Extinct in the Wild – China’s enigmatic Père David’s deer (Elaphurus davidianus). 

Père David’s deer

The study – published in the journal Royal Society Open Science – found that two unidentified deer skins dating from over 150 years ago, held in the Natural History Museum’s historical mammal collections, had actually originated from the last-recorded wild herd of Père David’s deer (Elaphurus davidianus). The insights gained from this analysis promise to inform future conservation efforts for the species, providing fresh insights for managing reintroduction to the wild. 

The study has also confirmed that, contrary to previous theories and available archaeological records, the last stronghold for wild populations of this species was the southern Chinese island province of Hainan, and not northern mainland China as was previously believed. 

Lead author Dr Samuel Turvey from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, comments: “It seems fitting that ZSL was involved in this study, given our history with this iconic species. There was actually a meeting here at the Society back in 1904, where it was suggested that Père David’s deer persisted in the wild on Hainan Island. Sadly, without access to modern forensic DNA techniques, this idea quickly sank without trace. Now it turns out to have been remarkably prescient.

“Our study also provides a great example of how historical archives such as museum collections can inform contemporary approaches to wildlife conservation, while also furthering our understanding of the mechanics of extinction. Although it may be too late for other extinct mammals, including China’s recently extinct Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), the fact that Père David’s deer still exist in zoological collections around the world – including ZSL Whipsnade Zoo – raises the tantalising prospect of one day returning these animals to their natural habitat on Hainan.”

Also known as milu (‘elk-deer’ in Chinese), Père David’s deer are referred to in Chinese mythology, with the ancient name ‘sibuxiang’ (meaning ‘the four unlikes’) showing how they were believed to be a combination of four other animals: cow, deer, donkey and horse (or camel). Recognisable by their unique, rearward-facing antlers, all animals alive today are descended from a captive herd that lived in the grounds of the Imperial Hunting Lodge outside Beijing during the 19th century, which was until now of unknown wild origin. After animals were sent from China to Europe in the 19th century, the original herd was killed by hunters who broke into the grounds of the Imperial Hunting Lodge during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Following the successful reintroduction of the scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah) to the wild in Chad, Père David’s deer is currently the only mammal species that is Extinct in the Wild but surviving in captivity. 

Co-author Dr Selina Brace, Researcher of Ancient DNA at the Natural History Museum, comments: “Having heard the fascinating tale of the Père David deer and its recovery from the brink of extinction, it was exciting to be asked years later to work on this project. I’m so pleased that we were able to shed more light onto this iconic species and story.”

Père Amand David (1826-1900), the first European to see the Imperial Hunting Lodge’s deer herd, was a Jesuit missionary who lived in China towards the end of the Qing Dynasty. Also an enthusiastic naturalist, he was the first Westerner to encounter the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) and was responsible for popularising the keeping of gerbils as domestic pets in Europe. Today, his memory lives on in the scientific names of various charismatic animals he discovered, from the eponymous deer to the Critically Endangered Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus).  

ZSL has a long heritage of conservation work on Hainan, which also includes ongoing efforts to save the world’s rarest and most threatened mammal species, the Hainan gibbon (Nomascus hainanus)

Visitors to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo can also view one of the last surviving conservation herds of Père David’s deer in the Zoo’s Passage through Asia exhibit

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