All Photos Courtesy of Linda Kerley, Zoological Society of London (ZSL)
Scientist Linda Kerley had hiked into a birch and alder forest in far east Russia to check on a camera trap when she came across a puzzling scene. Beneath some trees, she found the remains of a young, dead sika deer. She looked for tracks of a tiger or other large predator in the snow around the already heavily decomposed carcass, but she didn’t see any. In fact, there was no clue at all as to who or what could have killed the animal, which had been dead for approximately 15 days. Instead, from the animal tracks, it looked like the deer had been running along through the forest, then keeled over and died. It just “felt wrong,” Kerley said in a press release.
The incident might have remained an unsolved mystery, if not for the camera traps. They recorded the attack by an unlikely culprit: a golden eagle.
The traps had been set to photograph Amur tigers in the area as part of Kerley’s ongoing research for the Zoological Society of London. Instead, in three frames taken during a two-second period, the images showed an adult golden eagle clinging to the back of the struggling, roughly six-month-old, 90-pound deer.
Golden eagles are the most widely distributed of all eagle species, found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Their wingspan averages between six and eight feet and their massive talons are capable of ripping into the internal organs and crushing the spines of their prey. The birds usually hunt snakes, small mammals and birds, but they have been known to attack some larger creatures as well, including deer, foxes and even, in one instance, a brown bear cub. This was the first documented attack on a sika deer.
“I’ve been assessing deer causes of death in Russia for 18 years,” said Kerley in the statement. “This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this.”
It’s unclear whether the eagle actually killed the deer or whether it died of stress after the incident. Kerley told NPR she believes the deer died quickly because the same camera trap photographed the arrival of the first vulture, 68 minutes later, attracted by the carcass.
She and her colleague, Jonathan Slaght of the Wildlife Conservation Society, emphasized that this type of attack is very rare. It was probably just a matter of the eagle being in the right place at the right time. Luck, it would seem, wasn’t on the deer’s side.