Nara Park Deer Stay Genetically Pure for Over 1,000 Yrs

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A family of Japanese deer walk in Nara Park in June 2022.

TOKYO (Jiji Press) — A team of researchers from Japanese universities has found that a herd of Japanese deer inhabiting Nara Park has maintained a unique genotype for over 1,000 years.

Amid shrinking deer habitats caused by hunting and development, the herd in the park adjacent to Kasugataisha Shrine and local temples survived without mixing with other herds, as it was protected as sacred by humans, according to a paper released Jan. 31 by researchers at Fukushima University, Nara University of Education and Yamagata University.

The paper was published in the Journal of Mammalogy of the American Society of Mammalogists.

The team, including Toshihito Takagi, a graduate student at Fukushima University, collected muscle and blood samples from a total of 294 wild deer in 30 locations in the Kii Peninsula, including Nara Park, and analyzed their genetic structures.

The team found that deer in all locations had the same ancestors and could be divided into three groups — one in Nara Park, one in the western part of the Kii Peninsula and another in the eastern part of the peninsula.

The group from Nara Park had never mixed with the others after diverging from the ancestor group more than 1,000 years ago. The groups from the western and eastern parts of the Kii Peninsula diverged around the 16th century and mixed with each other in the central part of the peninsula.

The team said the outcome reflects the effects of human activities, noting that the overall number of deer has been decreasing due to the spread of rice cultivation, urbanization and hunting, while the worshiped herd of deer at Nara Park had been subject to protection.

It concluded that the unique genetic identity of the herd at the park has therefore been preserved for more than 1,000 years.

“Problems for people and the environment caused by deer overpopulation have become an issue. We hope the finding of our research will help people understand the origin of deer at Nara Park and devise new deer protection plans for the future,” Takagi said.