Recently we have discussed Sika deer and their antlers. Chinese research on Sika antlers shows promise for improvements in tissue regeneration. Meanwhile, research on sacred Japanese Sika deer presents another very interesting genetic result. It is also fuelling calls for more protection.
According to Phys.org the sacred status of some Japanese Sika deer has created provable genetic divergence from other bands of Sika deer.
Let’s back up a bit. Sika Deer (Cervus nippon) are a small Asian deer native to Japan. They stand about a half a foot shorter than whitetail deer. They are roughly half the weight of a mule deer. Sikas are also found in other parts of East Asia, but can be rare or even threatened in other parts of the range. Deer predators in Japan are probably extinct and the deer population is growing. Japan is facing more conflict between people and animals. People are leaving villages for cities, which are themselves growing. The abandonment of villages means there is less buffer between city dwellers and animals. There are also fewer hunters. Although the deer are not a direct threat, their population is expanding rapidly.
Meanwhile, hunting interests have imported Sika deer to many other parts of the world, including the United States and New Zealand.
In Japan, Sika are considered sacred by religious Japanese. This has led to a total ban on hunting in the areas around temples and shrines. That ban may have been in place a thousand years.
Dr. Toshihito Takagi said:
“Legend has it that the sika deer in Nara Park had long been strictly protected as messengers of the gods. Today, these deer are one of the most popular tourist attractions in Japan. However, there has been little genetic research on the origin of these deer. Therefore, we conducted a genetic analysis of sika deer in Nara Park and the surrounding areas to better understand their origin.”
Nara Park was founded in 1880 and is a large park in the city of Nara. The deer are a special attraction and tourists are encouraged to feed them.
Takagi was one of three Fukushima University professors in the study, Takagi was joined by professors Shingo Kaneko and Harumi Torii.
The researchers collected muscle and blood samples from deer at 30 sites on the Kii Peninsula. The samples were taken over a 16-year period. Those samples were classified into eight populations. The eight populations spanned the west, center and east of the peninsula. DNA was extracted and analyzed.
The results showed that the deer in question split from their ancestors at least 1,400 years ago. Approximately the time the Kasuga Taisha Shrine was established. The research shows that the eastern and western sika separated later. Those deer are the ancestors of the current Kii Peninsula population. The shrine is an important site in Japanese religious and political history.
The shrine’s conservation efforts, have increased the number of deer in Nara Park. As noted, deer and other wild animal populations are increasing in Japan. The result is damage to agriculture and forestry. Since the protected deer are now in contact with other deer their genes may mix. The researchers want conservation plans modified to reflect the new understanding. The goal is to protect the unique genetic pattern of the Nara deer.
Genetic studies are clarifying a number of wildlife mysteries. Studies on Australian wild dingoes is clarifying their relationship to domestic dogs. Recent discoveries of ancient DNA in Antarctica is shedding light on evolution in general. The close relationship of housecats and people may provide ways to use DNA to treat diseases common to both humans and cats.