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TROPHY POINTS: Big Game Research Online -- Part 9
Tuesday, June 21, 2011


By Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science, The University of Calgary; Boone and Crockett Club Professional Member

"Managing with the rifle", a conception which arose in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, contained the notion that the culling of the "unfit" was a genetic upgrading of the population, a means of eliminating genetic degeneracy of deer. The culling of the unfit by predators was to be replaced by culling by hunters. It was trumpeted as the best way to achieve large trophy antlers.

However, one who did not think that the small antlers and bodies of European deer were genetic degeneracy was Generaldirektor Franz Vogt, a captain of industry, a successful industrialist, and a chemist by training. He hypothesized that the small antler and body size of native deer was a question of inadequate nutrition, not of inadequate heredity. His approach to testing this hypothesis was that of a chemist. It was unique as it was quantitative, followed by a precise record of performance of his deer. This included annual photographs of each stag during its development by professional photographers. Vogt calculated the intake of nutrients (protein, calcium, phosphate, starch equivalents) by stags on maintenance rations and when growing antlers. He analyzed native forages for their nutrient content and his data remain some of the best available today. He was then able to show that native forages from the "cultural forests" of central Europe could not possibly provide enough protein, phosphate, and calcium for large antlers, let alone for antlers as large as those of medieval red deer, Vogt's basis for comparison.

Vogt organized a large scale experiment using two species of deer, red deer and roe deer, which lasted from 1927 to 1942. He used two strains of red deer, one from an enclosure of Count Merveldt in Alt-Warthau, Prussian-Silesia, with typical west-European features, and one from Draskovich's Selley enclosure in Hungary with typical east-European features. For details see my 1998 book Deer of the World. He took pains not to breed for large antler size by selecting for dominance, not antler size. He used a 150-ha enclosure, separated into three 50-ha partitions, where he kept track of deer from pure and mixed lineages. The native forages within the enclosures were poor, which forced his deer to accept the experimental forages he provided year-round. After meticulous research, he provided forages with high enough quantities of protein, minerals, energy, and vitamins to grow bodies and antlers of medieval or record proportions. The best feed in this regard were pressings from sesame seeds formed during oil extraction. He had a professional wildlife photographer record his deer in an ongoing fashion. Despite the very high density of deer in his enclosure (about 40-60 deer/100 ha), after five generations, his red deer had reached medieval proportions in body and antler size and 7 from 35 of his stags had broken the then world record. Body weight doubled in red and roe deer. His roe bucks sported antlers in the record class, though none broke the world record.

Vogt's work is not only exemplary science, much misunderstood be critics, but provided crucial insights. The five-generation lag of two species of deer before reaching maximum body dimensions was subsequently re-discovered some 40 years later and labeled "maternal effect". His deer, at large body size, proved to be very sensitive to forage quality in maintaining health; they could only function well on a luxury diet. His results put in question any taxonomic judgments based on body size, revealing the great plasticity in phenotype size and proportions; in this he paralleled the findings of classical Anglo American Animal Science. He emphasized that only well developed females and their offspring could produce large trophy males, so that attention to female nutrition was crucial. He found that females, not only males, were important in the transmission of antler characteristics. His work shows that not low density of deer, but net nutritional intake was responsible for growing large deer - in opposition to the popular claims of his time. The cost of combat injury to stags was high in that they regressed in antler mass and dimension during healing - despite excellent and abundant feed. Moreover, Vogt's data remains open to re-examination and analysis. For instance, his data on antler measurements shows that (1) the racial differences in antler structure and proportions became maximally expressed at maximum body size, (2) that F1 hybrids reflected primarily the features of the more primitive East-European red deer, and (3) that the West-European red deer, which live currently at relatively small body and antler size, have actually superior inherent antler producing capacities compared to the much heralded east-European red deer. 

The Second World War brought Vogt's work to a halt in 1942 as he could no longer obtain the high quality feed crucial to his experiments. Yet, he wrung insights from even this defeat by circumstances, showing how substituted feed of somewhat lower quality could not maintain his deer in health. His stags regressed in antler growth, the calves grew poorly, ill health threatened his experimental herd. He shut down the operation. His deer had increased steadily in body and antler size, till his high quality feed ran out. What dimensions would they have reached five years hence? Vogt published two books on his red deer experiments; his roe deer experiments were published posthumously. He died in 1946. During a visit to Austria I could only find one set of antlers from his once famous collection; it had been sold and apparently cut up for knife handles and buttons. The irreplaceable scientific value of this collection had not been appreciated. My wife Renate translated Vogt's second and most highly developed book into English, but no publisher could be found. Vogt's careful work and lucid, unpretentious writing remains to this day a treasury of insights - and an inspiration.

Geist, V. 1998. Deer of the World: Their Evolution, Behavior, and Ecology. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA. 421pp.


Trophy Points: Big Game Research On Line is complied and edited by David G. Hewitt, a Professional Member of the Boone and Crockett Club and the Stuart W. Stedman Chair for White-tailed Deer Research at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute. 

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