Bryn Athyn’s Deer Study


The Deer Study is a collaborative research and education project between Bryn Athyn College and Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust (PERT) that began in 2006. The main focus is to track the movements of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) fitted with high tech GPS/GSM radio collars in the suburban oasis of the Pennypack Watershed, which is surrounded by residential and industrial development.  The study fuses together the fields of biology, ecology, and environmental science together with front-end science.

The study, led by Dr. Eugene Potapov, involves faculty and students from Bryn Athyn College and personnel from PERT.  It provides an excellent opportunity for students to get first hand experience with biological research working side-by-side with faculty. Activities range from trapping the deer and fitting them with the collars, various types of fieldwork, generating interesting and relevant scientific questions, analyzing data, and presenting the results at scientific conferences and in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The study has developed a fundamentally new approach to understand the deer’s usage of territory implementing a Brownian bridge approach. This allows us to create a perceptual landscape of the deer, which is instrumental in building an understanding of the ecological constraints of habitat utilization in suburbia. The new method of visualization of deer movement with the help of a 3D space-time cube allows us to understand interactions of several individual deer. The latter technology was also instrumental to understand the impact of wind direction on the deer’s habitat choice.

The Deer Study also helps Bryn Athyn College and PERT to understand the management of suburban deer, as well as damage to vegetation and danger to motorists.  The accumulated data represent a unique growing database of animal movement, which is used for both scientific and academic purposes. The study has also developed and tested new methods for estimating deer density using automated infrared-triggered trail cameras, and new methods for investigation of the impact of deer on vegetation. We are currently working a project that compares the movements of deer to human activity in PERT (which is monitored by means of people counters). Another in progress study focuses on investigating how vegetation affects the visibility of deer and whether deer are limited to hideout places so that they are less visible to humans. In addition, a mail-to-map function developed by Dr. Potapov, which shows data from the tracking collars in real time around the clock on Google maps, was a first and has attracted world-wide attention.

To date, we have analyzed high precision trajectories of the movements of 51 deer, which has resulted in the presentation of 21 posters and 6 talks at 17 regional and national scientific conferences. In addition to these presentations, we have published 4 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Students take an active part in this process of presenting our scientific results. Over 20 students have participated in fieldwork (including deer trapping), and 16 students have helped to author the posters we have presented at scientific conferences.  Students have also given talks at scientific conferences and been credited as authors on articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In addition, five students have based their senior capstone projects on the deer study.

The deer study most recently presented three posters at the annual meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Ecological Society of America at Kutztown University on April 9, 2016. In October 2016 the deer study will give one oral presentation and present one poster at the annual conference of the Wildlife Society, which will be held in Raleigh, North Carolina.