The MSU Deer Lab is the premier deer research unit in the United States, addressing management issues of regional and national importance. We solve contemporary problems facing natural resource agencies, managers, and private landowners by conducting science-based research to better understand deer ecology and inform management.
The deer research program at Mississippi State University began with the arrival of Dr. Dave Guynn and Dr. Harry Jacobson in the mid-1970s. The synergism between these two young research biologists spawned many unique projects that generated national attention. Guynn left for other employment, and Dr. Jacobson expanded the breadth of deer research projects over a storied 20-year fulltime career, followed by continued interaction as Professor Emeritus.
Collectively, and working with numerous graduate students, cooperating agencies, foundations, and landowners, our current faculty have established the Deer Ecology and Management Lab at Mississippi State University.
St. John Family Professor of Wildlife Management
Extension Wildlife Specialist
Professional Member, Boone & Crockett Club
Taylor Chair in Applied Big Game Research & Instruction
Dale H. Arner Professor of Wildlife Ecology & Mgt
Fellow of The Wildlife Society
Garrett Street is a quantitative ecologist specializing in spatiotemporal dynamics in habitat selection and space use. His research focuses on linking fine-scale behavioral processes at the individual and population levels to broad-scale patterns of species distributions and abundance across broad geographic extents. He has addressed these issues using cutting edge statistical and simulation techniques in numerous deer species including moose (Alces alces), Roosevelt elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti), and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and is dedicated to developing new ecological knowledge that can be applied to the improvement of wildlife management and conservation through the Southeast.
Dr. Marcus Lashley started his career with a degree from MSU and returned in 2015 to serve as the wildlife habitat specialist in the department. Dr. Lashley earned his M.S. degree at the University of Tennessee and Ph.D. at North Carolina State University. His research has focused on several areas of deer behavior and diet selection, and habitat management with fire and timber harvests. Currently, he and his student Don Chance are evaluating the effects of forage availability and cover on deer habitat use following common habitat management practices.
Dana Morin is a carnivore ecologist with expertise in methods for estimating population numbers. Her research combines tracking of carnivores with non-invasive genetic methods (sampling from hair and fecal matter) to estimate prey population size, predator diets and population sizes, and potential impacts of predators on prey populations. Using these methods, Dr. Morin aspires to untangle the complex interactions between carnivores and deer in the Southeast. As Dr. Morin specializes in spatially-explicit estimates of animal density, her work will also provide insight to spatial variability in risk of predation or disease to deer.
Current and Past Students
Hometown: Elkin, North Carolina
Advisor: Marcus Lashley
Oaks have been declining in dominance across the eastern United States for decades as a result of fire suppression and other indirect effects. While this subtle shift in forest composition is difficult to notice now, the future of many wildlife species and upland forest communities will be in jeopardy if work is not done to improve oak regeneration in upland forests now.
Graduate student Moriah Boggess is working to identify how fire and deer interact with upland hardwood communities to affect oak competition with other tree species. He is specifically examining how diet selection of deer is affected by top-kill following growing season and dormant season fire. He uses seedling transplants, natural regenerating seedlings, and saplings to examine nutritional differences and deer diet selection between oaks and their competitors following fires.
He is also examining how good mast production can affect competition of oaks with other species by affecting deer behavior. To accomplish this, Moriah will collect approximately 75,000 acorns and distribute them under 25 oaks to simulate exceptional acorn crops, and he will measure deer use with trail cameras. With this data he will be able to determine relative deer use between trees with little mast and exceptional mast. He will then compare deer use with browse surveys of planted oak and blackgum seedlings under these trees to identify if and by what mechanism large mast crops may improve oak regeneration through attracting large seed eating mammals.
Additionally, Moriah is working on a project to determine the potential effects of fire timing and deer herd reduction on lone star tick abundance (the primary culprit of the spread of the red-meat allergy). He is also examining how supplemental feeding affects acorn selection and predation through a free-range acorn selection study involving 19 of the most common oak species in the southeast.
Hometown: Maryville, Tennessee
Advisor: Marcus Lashley
White-tailed deer rely heavily on their environment to gain the shelter and nutrition they need. Meanwhile, humans have the power to influence this environment through a variety of management techniques.
Graduate student Don Chance is uncovering how management techniques like herbicides, prescribed fire and thinning affect the nutritional quality of white tailed deer. To do this, Chance takes vegetation measurements to gauge the forage types, basal area, and forage production on managed sites.
He also uses trail cameras to examine how white-tailed deer utilize their habitat. With this information, Chance hopes to glean which vegetation types are considered most valuable by white-tailed deer-both in terms of cover and forage.
Because the cameras are set up to capture all wildlife, he is also able to collect data on other species, and may be able to draw conclusions about how other species navigate managed habitat.
Hometown: Amory, Mississippi
Advisor: Marcus Lashley
We know white-tailed deer are picky eaters and that plant nutrients play an important role in their diets. But have you ever thought about how individual nutrients may affect what plants deer select to eat? It is often thought that deer are simply trying to maximize the amount of nutrients they ingest to ensure their nutritional requirements are met, however, too much of anything can be bad.
Graduate student Jacob Dykes is evaluating how the nutrient concentrations within a plant influence deer selecting that plant as a forage. In particular, he is investigating the idea that deer diet selection is determined by not only the pursuit of certain nutrients but also the avoidance of others. In fact, avoiding toxic amounts of a nutrient may be more important than preventing a deficiency because the effects of toxicity are likely more sudden and severe.
To accomplish this, he will use 15 popular food plot forages planted in separate adjacent plots. All forages will be protected with electric fencing until establishment. Fences will then be removed and deer selection for each plant will be measured using trail cameras. Each plant will be analyzed to determine the concentration of each individual nutrient.
In addition, Jacob will select 2 popular food plot species in which he will plant multiple adjacent plots of each. Within each forage species, he will manipulate nutrient concentrations in the soil of some plots by applying lime and fertilizer, while leaving the other plots untouched. He will then measure deer selection and nutrient concentration of each plant. This will allow Jacob to investigate the effects of soil nutrients on plant nutrient concentrations and ultimately deer diet selection. By using the same plant species, Jacob will be able to control for visual cues and thus, test whether deer use nutrient composition to discriminate between the same plant species.
With this data, Jacob hopes to identify key nutrients that deer are pursuing or avoiding when selecting their diets. He also hopes to offer a better understanding of how soil quality can affect the nutritional composition of a plant and ultimately change deer selection of that plant. With this research we can improve our understanding of white-tailed deer diet selection and make informed management decisions in the future.
Hometown: Starkville, Mississippi
Advisor: Steve Demarais
How do deer change habitat selection based on hunting risk that is on the landscape? What times of day do deer mostly use food plots? When acorns are dropping, how do deer respond to this abundance of food?
In order to discover how deer react to hunting pressure and how deer alter the landscape that they use, Colby Henderson and his advisors will be using GPS data on white-tailed deer to answer these questions. Deer will be captured with dart guns and drop nets on private properties in Madison and Yazoo counties, Mississippi. Capturing these deer with dart rifles will allow us to fit GPS collars on adult bucks. Over two years, these GPS collars will collect data on where these deer go, but also when they are in certain places.
During the hunting season, hunters try to choose hunting stands based off where they think the deer will be. It may be on a food plot or on the edge of a soybean field, but hunters want to be where they think deer will be. Hunters also wonder what times of the day are deer using food plots or soybean fields. Is it mostly the early morning or late afternoon or the middle of the night? Can hunters become more effective by knowing exactly when deer are in food plots, and how deer respond to hunters when one food plot is hunted repeatedly during the season?
Colby's project aims to answer these questions by using information collected from both deer and hunters. By answering these questions, we may not only help hunters in Mississippi, but also anywhere deer are hunted. We are excited about the opportunity to answer these unique questions and not only expand the scientific knowledge surrounding deer, but to also help hunters become more effective.
Hometown: Carmel, Indiana
Advisor: Steve Demarais
Supplemental feeding of white-tailed deer is popular among landowners wanting to view wildlife and provide nutrition to the deer on their land. Contrasting these potential upsides are the possible negatives associated with congregating animals in a small area – such as increased likelihood of disease spread.
Graduate student Miranda Huang is studying how supplemental feeding may be affecting three potential sources of disease: ticks, aflatoxins, and gastrointestinal parasites. This study will use sites of year-round supplemental feeding and paired, ecologically-similar, unfed sites. The unfed sites will help to isolate the effects of supplemental feeding on these factors by controlling for regional and habitat variation. At each site, Huang will trap ticks and collect scat to test for the presence of diseases such as Lyme disease, Heartland Virus, and Giardia. Feed will be collected and tested for aflatoxins.
Huang is also using trail cameras to identify which animals are visiting sites to determine what species are at risk for contracting diseases found at the sites. All this information will be compiled to determine how supplemental feeding is affecting disease prevalence using ticks, fecals, and feed as models. Additionally, the number of years of supplemental feeding will be examined as a potential factor in the prevalence of aflatoxins, ticks, scat, and their associated diseases. Huang hopes this information will help improve our understanding of the effects of supplemental feeding and can provide guidance on how to mitigate any risks of feeding.
Hometown: New Prague, Minnesota
Advisor: Steve Demarais
For as long as hunting season has existed, hunters have claimed that deer disappear as soon as opening day arrives.
In order to uncover exactly where deer go during hunting season, the Deer Lab has put science to the task. Under the direction of Dr. Steve Demarais, graduate student Ashley Jones will trap and collar 50 mature bucks this winter and track their movements to determine how they utilize the landscape with hunting pressure. "We'll be using a combination of dart guns and drop nets. The benefit of the dart guns is that they allow us to be very selective, which is good for this study because we only need adult males," explained Jones. The adult males that are caught will be collared with GPS collar, and then released. Over the next two years, data on their movements will be recorded.
This project is especially important in a state like Mississippi, where most recreational hunting is geared toward trophy hunting. Figuring out how adult males utilize landscapes is of particular interest to hunters.
The study also has other complicating factors that Jones will consider when analyzing her data. "Hunting season in Mississippi is four months long, which is far longer than most states. If it starts October 1, and goes until January, there’s this whole time period where they are responding to hunting pressure, and then a secondary period where they’re in rut, and so they have to contend with hunters and the need to mate."
The deer will be captured on private property in Madison and Yazoo county. "I’m very grateful to the landowners who have allowed us to use their land to begin to answer these questions. I hope that we can give something back to them by demonstrating how deer use the landscape during hunting season in Mississippi," stated Jones.
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Advisor: Steve Demarais
Love works in mysterious ways. Master's student Dan Morina hopes to make it a little less mysterious, at least as far as white-tailed deer are concerned. Morina is conducting a study to see whether female deer are selective about their mates, and if so, and which characteristics are important factors.
To answer this question, he darts wild deer and brings them to MSU's Deer Pens, where he then rigs them with antler adapters that allow him to swap on antlers of different sizes. That way, large bodied deer can have small antlers, and small bodied deer can have larger antlers. Females are released into a pen between two males, and cameras are used to record which fence line she spends the most time on. With this data, Morina and his advisor, Dr. Steve Demarais, hope to hone in on the characteristics that female deer look for in mates.
This study will also contribute important information regarding Fischer's homeostasis hypothesis, which indicates that populations tend to have roughly the same number of male and female individuals because whenever a certain sex is rarer, more is produced of that sex.
Finally, Morina is also using bred deer to determine the fetal growth curve of white-tailed deer in Mississippi. Having an accurate fetal growth curve is important for managers, as they sometimes need to be able to estimate approximate breeding dates of deer. It also adds valuable biological information to the body of literature on white-tailed deer.
Hometown: Stevensville, Michigan
Advisor: Dr. Barton (Dr. Demarais, unofficial advisor)
Do deer alter their behavior to contend with heat?
Carter Wolfe is studying how temperature alters deer foraging.
"In each habitat there are varied structures that can protect deer from thermal stress," explains Wolfe. "At the deer pens we've set up an experiment to discover whether deer utilize these structures when there is increased thermal stress."
Wolfe's study will become increasingly important as global climate change leads to rising temperatures; researchers need to understand how heat impacts the amount of food animals consume, and whether they will change their preferences based on the temperature.
"The simplified question is, do deer endure stress to feed, or do they change their behavior?" said Carter.
They are measuring feed consumption in single deer trials as well as in large scale groups. For this reason, Wolfe has broken the deer into two pens.
One pen holds a single animal with shaded and unshaded structures over food. Trail cams record 24-hour video that will later be used to parse out how much time the individual spends eating at the shaded vs unshaded food source.
The second pen uses trail cam photos to record the foraging preferences of a group of 15 deer. While the elements of shaded and unshaded food sources are still in effect, Wolfe has also added distance between each element in order to determine whether the distance the deer are willing to travel is altered by temperature.
Hometown: Hoosick Falls, New York
Advisor: Steve Demarais
Can non-native deer be genetically distinguished from native individuals? And how did restoration efforts in the 1900s impact modern deer populations? Master's student Jordan Youngmann is working to answer these questions.
Youngmann's project has multiple objectives. First, he hopes to form a pictures of the genetic strains in today's deer by collecting samples from around the Southeast, as well as from other states around the US.
In the 1900s, deer populations were at an all-time low in the Southeast. In one of the most successful wildlife restoration efforts of all time, deer were imported from all over the country and released throughout Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. While past studies have shown that today's deer populations still reflect their mixed ancestry, Youngmann hopes to delve deeper into the question of how deer from northern states, with radically different climates and pathogen regimes, fared in the south.
By comparing the genetics of southeastern deer with those from stock sources (like Wisconsin, New York, and Texas), Youngmann may be able to find micro satellite markers that indicate a northern influence.
This study could provide important information to other restoration projects about whether individuals being transported into radically different environments can successfully contribute to repopulating the area.
He also hopes to determine whether micro satellite markers can be used to distinguish between generations of white-tailed deer, a tool that would help scientists figure out when non-native deer were introduced to native populations.
Finally, Youngmann will create a protocol for other scientists to follow in determining when non-native deer were mixed into the population.