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Natural causes of white-tailed deer morbidity and mortality in New York State


Zhu, Sophie et al. (2021), Natural causes of white-tailed deer morbidity and mortality in New York State, Dryad, Dataset,


White-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus are the most popular big game animal in the United States. Recreational harvest of these animals is a critical tool in population management, as well as an important financial resource for state economies and wildlife agencies. Thus, herd health evaluations can provide information to wildlife managers tasked with developing sustainable harvest practices while monitoring for emergent problems. The purpose of our study was to document causes of illness and natural mortality in New York white-tailed deer submitted for post mortem evaluation. Animals were presented by members of the public and wildlife management personnel due to abnormal behavior or unexplained death. We describe demographic and seasonal associations among gross and histologic evaluation and diagnostic testing. Post mortem examinations were performed on 735 white-tailed deer submitted for necropsy in New York from January 2011 to November 2017. Causes of euthanasia or mortality were classified into nine categories. The most common findings were bacterial infections, trauma not evident at time of collection, and nutritional issues, primarily starvation. Using a multinomial logistic regression model, we looked for associations between the mortality categories and age, sex and season. Compared to the baseline of bacterial deaths, adults were less likely to have died from nutritional and parasitic causes, males were less likely to have died from other causes, and risk of death from nutritional reasons decreased from season to season, with lowest risk in winter. These methods can help wildlife biologists track changes in disease dynamics over time.


Two of the highest priorities, also reflected in the New York State Interagency CWD Risk Minimization Plan, are to detect chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the deer population and document causes of death and disease in white-tailed deer. Standardized criteria for submission in the surveillance program are: 1) live deer behaving abnormally or in poor body condition necessitating humane euthanasia and; 2) deer found dead without an obvious cause of death or found to have some abnormality. DEC may be notified of deer meeting these criteria by members of the public or law enforcement and can submit the animal for necropsy and diagnostic testing. Because the surveillance program specifically excludes deer that died from obvious predation, hunting, and deer-vehicle collisions, animals collected do not represent the New York population as a whole; however, they are valuable for assessing the breadth of diseases affecting wild deer and establishing a standardized baseline for future assessment. A benefit of this program is that these animals can serve as sentinels for emerging diseases. This type of opportunistic surveillance is a widely used method for states to prioritize deer that could be infected by CWD (Joly et al. 2009). Providing a basis for comparison will allow states to refine their surveillance systems to be better informed about white-tailed deer diseases by demo- graphic categories and seasonality.

For the present study, records from deer presented for necropsy through the surveillance program from 2011 to 2017 were compiled to retrospectively evaluate disease occurrence in a subset of the New York deer population. A total of 534 deer out of 735 that died between January 2011 to November 2017 met the criteria for inclusion in the study. Deer that died from obvious, non-natural causes, including deer killed for diagnostic tests (9), forensic studies (102), research (21), hunter killed (49), obvious vehicular trauma and predation (20) were excluded. The study population consisted of 230 females, 169 males, and 135 animals of unknown sex. There were 227 adults, 157 juveniles, 17 neonates, and 133 deer of unknown age. Weight data was available for 215 cases in which full carcasses were submitted.

Usage Notes

Please see github repository for data as well as R code:

The majority of the animals for which sex (missing=U), age (missing=0) and weight (missing=NA) data were unavailable were in the “unknown” cause of death category (n=253). Of these, a diagnosis could not be obtained in 168 because of insufficient data histories and lack of appropriate tissue collection. Missing data in the remaining cases was due either to missing tissues, autolysis or failure of the prosector to record the data.