By Ken Slee
As sambar colonise new areas and us hunters follow along, it is perhaps not surprising that we start to find them in very different environments and discover variations in sambar behaviour that don’t quite fit with what we expect.
I look back to when ‘sambar country’ was heavily timbered mountains and creek and river flats and our collective amazement when we discovered sambar living on alpine plateaus among scattered patches of snow gums and mountain pepper — a revelation that we took full advantage of at that time. Equally revealing at around the same time (mid-1980s) was walking the few metres from harsh dry eucalypt forest into a rainforest gully and going from a dearth of deer sign into an area that was chock-a-block with tracks, droppings and other evidence of their presence.
East Gippsland is generally a lot drier than most of the accepted sambar range and over the past few years on several occasions I have come across what I suspect are sambar ‘wallows’ but rather than being made in wet mud, they have been made in a patch of dry sand. Besides the worked-over sand each of them has featured the rubbing and preaching trees that you would normally associate with a sambar wallow. I suspect that this is another discovery that falls outside what we hunters would normally consider classic ‘sambar behaviour’.
A recent hunt in coastal country I had never been in before found me holding off a spot where there seemed to be a lot of deer. They were feeding on farmland at night before retreating to bed in adjacent State Forest during the day. Although the area had mostly heavy clay soils, the gentle west-facing slopes had areas of sand, probably blown in from the nearby ocean over thousands of years.
Standing on a tree stump waiting for some action, I could see a large white patch of bare soil up through the trees 150 metres away and assumed that it was a vehicle track. As the hunt had obviously gone in that direction, I took the decision after an hour or so to head towards the ‘track’ and beyond to see if I could regain hearing of the hounds.
As I closed in, it became obvious that my target was not a track but a large bare patch of coarse white sand and the sambar sign was obvious; hoof prints everywhere, several rub trees around the perimeter, a preach tree, and beneath the preach tree a flattened patch of sand where an animal (a stag?) had been laying down. This was by far the best example of a ‘sand wallow’ that I had ever come across and it got me wondering how I could prove that it was the equivalent of the more usual mud wallow.
When I mentioned my find to some of the other guys in the team back at camp, they commented that they too had also found similar heavily-used bare patches of sand where they had been, so it seems that my find was not unique in the area and, in fact, was just one of several thereabouts.
During the day we also came across a couple of really spectacular mud wallows in the hunting area. They were both on heavy clay soil that would hold water after rain. Obviously, a patch of sand would be different and would never hold surface water.
Max Downes in his report The Forest Deer Project 1982 described the breeding strategies of sambar stags:
‘The dominant stag depends on scent-markers, visual signals and behavioural displays to maintain his status in the hierarchy, his social rights in the mating-territory and access to females available or ready for mating. Tree-trunks, branches and twigs, earth scrapes and other features in sambar territory are marked with scent in order to identify the owner, warn or intimidate an opponent, or to attract a female in heat. Exudate from glands may be deposited anywhere from ground level to more than 11 feet high above the ground in the so-called preaching trees. Visual signs of the stag’s presence are earth scrapes, made by pawing the ground at the base of a tree, usually in a fan shape; a urine-patch; polished wood on trunk or root; gouged tree-trunks, twirled bushes, or grass; thrashed shrubs; stripped saplings; mud wallows; antler marks on mud, termite mound or bark of tree; and mud marks on the rub-trees.’
OK, so according to Max, with sambar it is all about scent and their breeding regime, and more recently trail camera footage of conventional mud wallows bolsters this idea — sexually aroused stags urinating in wallows and coating themselves with the mud impregnated with their scent and then depositing this mud on nearby vegetation, including on preach trees so that the message of their presence and availability drifts widely on the breeze.
To my way of thinking, sand will never hold moisture (and stag urine) like mud, and will therefore never make a potent mixture that then can be smeared on surrounding vegetation so that it persists at least until the next heavy rain. But then, perhaps I am wrong, and functionally it is possible that both the mud wallow and the more unusual sand wallow have exactly the same purpose!
The obvious solution to finding out more about the significance of sand wallows is to put a trail camera on a couple to see how they are used by the deer. Are they used primarily by stags but visited by hinds too? Do the stags urinate in them? Do stags get down and roll in them to coat themselves with sand and scent? Do stags become sexually aroused when they visit and then do the rounds of the area to deposit their scent on vegetation?
It will be an interesting experiment and with luck such an investigation will add to our knowledge of our sambar and how their society and breeding regime functions.