Does the Friendliness Gene Exist?

Last Summer I wrote about a pair of whitetail fawns growing up in the field beyond the local Elks Lodge. The Lodge sits on one side of a hollow at the base of Pine Mountain, my house is at the top of the mountain, Β and my road meanders down the side opposite from the Lodge. There is a large whitetailΒ herd and it’s not uncommon to see the same deer at any spot along the mountain.

This is a shot of the friendly fawn from last summer.

This is a shot of the friendly fawn from last summer.

Over the years I have photographed a doe that is easily recognized by a thin white strip on just above her black nose. She is friendly and curious about me and tolerates me approaching her to take photos. I respect her space and back off if she shows any sign of concern. Last year she had two fawns – one with a black nose and one with a white stripe that had a wide spot in the center. Like it’s momma, the one with the white stripe had no concern about my presence and was actually very curious.

This shot gives a clearer picture of the marking in the fawn's nose.

This shot gives a clearer picture of the marking in the fawn’s nose.

That original doe was one of triplets and was the only one with the white mark. Her sister still stays close and is not at all friendly. She starts snorting almost as soon as I leave my jeep. That friendly doe has had two sets of twins and only one of those has a white stripe and only that one is really friendly like she is. The others have been very cautious and quick to run off. Last year I was lucky to get so close to the friendly fawn on several occasions.

The tail tucked and low like this indicates no sense of alarm. Whitetails use their tails like flags when alarmed - the rest of the herd can spot them in the woods when the have it raised so the white hairs show.

The tail tucked and low like this indicates no sense of alarm. Whitetail use their tails like flags when alarmed – the rest of the herd can spot them in the woods when the have it raised so the white hairs show.

I watched a documentary about the domestication of wolves – the forefathers of dogs. Humans and wolves have always interacted – wolves feeding off of livestock or the trash of people. In a pack of wolves there is usually one or two who are bolder around humans. These wolves are the ones who make friends with humans and by doing so they can secure food and comfort for the pack – they are like ambassadors. Scientists have found that these dogs share a genetic marker and they call it the friendliness gene. This marker is also found in domesticated dogs today.

Not that this has anything to do with whitetail deer, but it got me thinking about why some deer are curious and some are flighty. The deer have no need to befriend me for food. I do find it an interesting coincidence that all of the deer in our small herd who are comfortable and even curious about me and my camera seem to have a similar white stripe on their nose – is it nature or nurture? Does the original doe’s boldness embolden some of her fawns?

Notice how the doe has no concern or alarm, she even turns her back on me when her fawn is nearby.

Notice how the doe has no concern or alarm, she even turns her back on me when her fawn is nearby.

Of course winter comes and the whitetail move deep into the hollow. I put my thoughts about this friendly trait away for winter. The deer stay away from the field once hunting season opens and have yet to make an appearance there this year. I have seen a couple on the roadside running into the woods, so they are on the move.

A couple of days ago I saw a deer ahead of me on the road. It didn’t bolt – it just looked my way and walked leisurely into the woods. I pulled up along side and it looked over its shoulder at me…

Unconcerned with me or my noisy jeep, this yearling looked at me.

Unconcerned with me or my noisy jeep, this yearling looked at me.

I stayed in the jeep – opened the passenger window and snapped a few shots. I was taken aback by how long the young whitetail looked at me and at its calm demeanor. And then I saw it…

20130321-121924.jpgThis was not any yearling, this was my friendly fawn. No wonder it showed no concern for me, it knows me. It survived the winter in the hollow and is now roaming over the hills.

It’s nice to catch up with old friends.

221 thoughts on “Does the Friendliness Gene Exist?

  1. I wouldn’t say it exists in our genes, but our virtuous qualities that we sometimes display are stemming from our higher purpose or higher self, that’s if you’re inclined to believe this as I do.

  2. Incredible. Can you imagine that in the new system, all animals will be friendly and have no fear of mankind. We will be able to interact with all the animals of God’s creation. Your story is a tiny glimpse into the future. Well written story. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: I’m Over the Moon | the eff stop

  4. Since there’s some problem with the ‘like’ button, here’s a super-big like in the form of a comment. Great pics, awesome post. Love your thoughts. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  5. Love you’re pictures, I always have a soft spot for deers and does, perhaps its was the disney upbringing with Bambi. When reading your blog it reminded me of the wild/domestic silver fox documentry I had watched. So in short the domestic-fox has over 40 disparities in genes than their wild counterparts… perhaps there is some of this going on with your doe colony. Google for more info on it, its interesting.
    Keep up the great work.

  6. Hello! what a lovely post – beautiful photos and lovely deer. I’m a scientist with a particular interest in evolutionary biology, and I was really expecting that you’d bring in the Friendly Foxes study! It’s actually oddly relevant to your post. I’m actually looking forward to writing a blog post about it myself, but I never got around to it. Perhaps you’ve inspired me!

    The Friendly Fox experiment was performed at a Russian fox-breeding farm, where the famous silver foxes were being raised for their fur. Breeders decided to pick out the friendliest and most approachable of their breeding foxes and mate them together. Out of the resulting pups, the friendliest and most charming were picked again and bred to each other. Over a few generations, the foxes became more and more friendly and doglike, showing and requesting affection, even though these undomesticated animals are not expected to “need” human affection as our pets do. However, many of these changes could be explained behaviorally – pups raised by a tame mother would observe and adopt her behavior towards humans; friendly pups would receive affection that would make them even more friendly, and so on.

    This means that for biologists, the most interesting aspect of the experiment was the resulting biological changes in the foxes. Soon, the “tame” silver fox pups were being born with floppy ears, and they took longer to grow up. Now, puppies have a much longer childhood than wolf pups, although wolves and dogs are functionally the same species. However, the long childhoods of puppies mean that they can absorb lots of social conditioning from the humans they live with, and they’re cuter and more appealing for longer.

    Most interestingly for you? The foxes developed white patches on them. White patches are an odd feature of domestic animals. Generally, only domesticated strains of animals like dogs, cats, horses, cows, goats, pigs, bunnies, etc. bear random white markings…. and when the friendliest foxes were bred to each other, the “piebald” genetic trait began to appear.

    • Another commenter mentioned the Fox study, I have seen a documentary on that on Nat Geo and had forgotten all about the white patches! I’m sure that documentary informed some of my perceptions when I pondered the friendly deer. I remember the visuals of the woman in the snow with the foxes. I’m no scientist, but I found it fascinating. I have a purebred Jack Russell Terrier that I got from a breeder with the opposite issue. He was bred for conformation and he is a very well proportioned dog physically. He is a natural hunter. He is perfect except for one thing, he cannot bear to be touched or handled by strangers. He is painfully shy. I went to the breeder to get a puppy after my older terrier died and the woman showed me this gorgeous dog and told me I could have him if I would take him. She did not want to pass on his shyness, she was certain that his bloodline would not be good show dogs because of this trait.

  7. Hey you are awesome, nice work and nice photos. I used to do the same thing with parrots when i was little, watched them and observed how some were bolder than others. Some even went to the extent of taking food directly from my hand while others wouldn’t come at all if i was too close to the window. I wish I had checked for signs of similarity in the bold ones like the white mark you talk about πŸ™‚

    Nevertheless, I relate to your interests somehow. I am following you now πŸ™‚

    • You know, the first doe had a scar on her side so, that’s what I noticed first. It was later that I noticed her stripe, mostly as a way of knowing which deer I was approaching. Thanks so much for the follow – I’ll be checking out your blog soon as well!

  8. This was a fascinating article, and quite a coincidence I saw it, seeing as I started reading a novel last night that goes into rather a lot of detail about deer. (The Forest, by Edward Rutherford.) It’s rather awesome that you’ve established relationships with particular ones. I look forward to reading more of your stuff.

    • Thanks Elyse, I was FP’d once before, on my second day of blogging. I had no idea of what was happening. I just thought that WordPress bloggers were very friendly πŸ™‚

      • I think that’s how I found you originally. I don’t often look to see what’s on there (and the format doesn’t make it easy to identify friends)

        But WordPress bloggers are a delightful bunch!

        • I think so too. My brother migrated his Blogspot blog over here and told me he was getting a lot more interaction. I had contributed to a outdoor blog over there that no one followed. So when all those emails started popping up I was sure that my brother was right, people really did connect over here πŸ™‚ I had no idea what they were talking about when they offered congratulations. I’m really grateful because the interaction made me write and read more. So many of my favorite blogs I read now were ones I found that first week.

  9. Stunning images! The deer around here (NorCal) tend to get close if you have food (or if they want to eat your garden), but I’ve never heard of them being as friendly as you’ve described. So wonderful! I love deer. πŸ™‚

    • Thanks! I know that a lot of people see them as a nuisance – feasting on their gardens, living in the woods I think it comes with the territory. I used to live in the Cascades and never got so close to them as I seem to here in the Ozarks.

  10. You have some great photos and an even greater observation. I contend that there is a friendly gene in humans that might explain the difference in personalities of extrovert and introvert.

  11. I really enjoyed this blog, and found it very fascinating, as I love animals. Although, this has got me thinking, maybe the white spot is a genetic mark that comes with the friendliness gene, or maybe something new entirely. However the case my be, I really enjoyed this blog, and hope that you see the fawn again in the future.

    • Oh, I wish I had a super super zoom. I do my best to get close and stay calm while I photograph them. They don’t like sudden movements or loud noise. I do sometimes make clicking sounds to get them to turn and look my way.

    • They probably think I’m a noisy beast with three eyes πŸ™‚ I love when the fawns first come out. I saw one on the road last year that was as under 20 pounds – so delicate.

  12. This is such an interesting post to read. I personally have never had the chance to catch any friendly dear staring at me. Must be something about living up in a mountain and your reoccurring encounters with them. I find it interesting as well that only the dear with white nose markings acknowledge you. I love the photos you included in this post. They show the real beauty of nature.

    • Thanks – I do think there is a familiarity built over time. I see it with birds too. They get used to you. Last year I put up a line of feeders and the small birds used their alert calls whenever I stepped out onto the patio – now they don’t raise an alert at all – some fly within inches of me when I am filling their feeders. I’m just part of the landscape now.

  13. That’s so cute! At first when you said shots I thought you meant gun shots so I was a bit concerned.. But I’m glad you just meant photo shots! They are beautiful pictures πŸ™‚

  14. Thank you for the informative blog & beautifully presented photos! I love deer, they are so cute & majestic! I come across them often on my forest preserve walks. Sadly, many of my landscape clients do not enjoy them as much as I do, as they like to eat their plants. But, I think I like them more because of that… Deer feeding = More plant installs $$

    • Hah – good way to look at it. I have very few issues with them in my garden, but my pups keep them out of the lawn most of the time. I love seeing them out in the wild though. They are majestic! Thanks!

  15. Reblogged this on Crunchy Fried Spiders and commented:
    Most people love spotting a deer in the woods alongside the road. There is something about them that causes one to pull over for a glimpse. Here are some beautiful photos of whitetail deer. I know you will enjoy them and the nice story as well.

  16. What a great post. I think it does exist. You should check out a story about the Sawtooth Wolves of Idaho. It’s a wonderful documentary and really shows the depths of feeling some animals can have.

    Somewhat related to this, I actually read an article about some monkeys the other day who will actively avoid humans that seem selfish. Thought it was pretty interesting. I guess though we’re the only ones that can “speak,” we’re not the only ones who have such a wide range of emotions.

    You would love the deer in Nara, Japan. They’ll walk right up to you, and are famous for “bowing” for crackers. Of course, it’s not healthy to feed them, but they are a large population and there aren’t really anymore natural predators in Japan, so the community has learned to live with them.

  17. Wonderful questions. I would also ask about the nature of the human approaching the wildlife — I’ve seen some individuals who are so peaceful they can approach a chipmunk in the wild and take it in their hands without consequence. Our own pet rabbits, who have the run of the downstairs during the daytime, have repeatedly shown a sense that certain individuals may approach them but others are not so privileged.
    Maybe there’s an element of kindred spirits at play here, and a desire for their company.

    • Maybe so – I do enjoy the company of most animals, but I think that like people – you are not friends with everyone, you don’t hit it off with everyone. I don’t care for my niece’s cat and it doesn’t care for me, but I do enjoy hanging out with the birds on my porch. Some of them almost come to me when I load the feeders – others stay far off until I leave.

      I have a terrier that is incredibly shy – he makes friends of his own choosing, but he really likes those whom he chooses. I think your rabbits (can I just say that I love the idea of free roaming house rabbits) make those choices about trust.

      My time with the herd has always been on their terms – if they are uncomfortable or show signs of concern, I back off and wait for another day.

  18. A wonderful story and pictures to go with it.
    It’s a nice thought to have in mind with the deers (and for any other animal, come to think of it), that they would have this ‘friendliness gene’. Unfortunately for me, however common the deers are around here, none of them seem to stay long enough for me to photograph! πŸ™‚

    • Thank you! My roadside shot wasn’t typical for me. I have watched the herd’s patterns over the years and know when they will be in the meadow, it gives me a better chance at a good shot. Of course, some are more cooperative than others πŸ™‚

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