Sambar

Rusa unicolor

The sambar is a large deer native to the Indian subcontinent, South China, and Southeast Asia that is listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List since 2008. Populations have declined substantially due to severe hunting, insurgency, and industrial exploitation of habitat.
The “sore” spot Many times when I am on safari in the forests of India, I hear someone exclaim, usually in alarm, that there is a wounded deer over there. 99% of the time this ends up being a Sambar with a large open sore oozing blood on the ventral surface of the neck. This is a common sight, but despite that, scientists do not know what it is, or why it happens! It is always visible but is most obvious and ‘oozy’ in the rutting season, from November to December. Because of this seasonal fluctuation, it is thought to be some kind of gland, and the ooze coming out of it is not actually blood but a fluid that may act as some kind of pheromone. It is a still a mystery, and not one is entirely sure what it is, what it is for and why it happens. It is important to note it is present on both male and female deer.

After many attempts, I managed to get a clean shot of the sore spot on this doe. It is out of season and not oozing, but is still very pronounced.
 April2015competition,Geotagged,India,John Rowell,Rusa unicolor,Sambar,Winter,adhocphotographer,sore spot

Appearance

The appearance and the size of sambar vary widely across their range, which has led to considerable taxonomic confusion in the past; over 40 different scientific synonyms have been used for the species. In general, they attain a height of 102 to 160 cm at the shoulder and may weigh as much as 546 kg, though more typically 100 to 350 kg. Head and body length varies from 1.62 to 2.7 m, with a 22 to 35 cm tail. Individuals belonging to western subspecies tend to be larger than those from the east, and females are smaller than males. Among all living cervid species, only the moose and the elk can attain larger sizes.

The large, rugged antlers are typically rusine, the brow tines being simple and the beams forked at the tip, so they have only three tines. The antlers are typically up to 110 cm long in fully adult individuals. As with most deer, only the males have antlers.

The shaggy coat can be from yellowish brown to dark grey in colour, and while it is usually uniform in colour, some subspecies have chestnut marks on the rump and underparts. Sambar also have a small but dense mane, which tends to be more prominent in males. The tail is relatively long for deer, and is generally black above with a whitish underside.

Adult males and pregnant or lactating females possess an unusual hairless, blood-red spot located about halfway down the underside of their throats. This sometimes oozes a white liquid, and is apparently glandular in nature.
The sambar stag || Bandipur || Feb 2021 Rusa unicolor,Sambar

Naming

The subspecies of sambar in India and Sri Lanka are the largest of the genus with the largest antlers both in size and in body proportions. The South China sambar of Southern China and mainland Southeast Asia is probably second in terms of size with slightly smaller antlers than the Indian sambar. The Sumatran sambar that inhabits the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra and the Bornean sambar seem to have the smallest antlers in proportion to their body size. The Formosan sambar is the smallest "R. unicolor" with antler-body proportions more similar to the South China sambar.

Currently, seven subspecies of sambar are recognised, although many others have been proposed.
Sore spot || Kabini || July 2015.
On many occasions on safari, I have seen people get alarmed thinking that there is a wounded deer by looking at its sore spot, the sambar deer that display this sore spot are easily mistaken to be wounded,  the sore spot usually occurs during the mating season, the falling hair give a bloody appearance to a circular area near the throat. This secretes a fluid, and is commonly called the Sore Spot. As to why it happens is a still a mystery, and not one is entirely sure what it is or what its for. Rusa unicolor,Sambar

Distribution

The sambar is distributed in much of South Asia as far north as the south-facing slopes of the Himalayas in Nepal and India, in mainland Southeast Asia including Burma, Thailand, Indochina, the Malay Peninsula, South China including Hainan Island, Taiwan, and the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. In the Himalayan foothills, Myanmar, and eastern Taiwan, it ranges up to 3,500 m. It inhabits tropical dry forests, tropical seasonal forests, subtropical mixed forests with stands of conifers, broadleaved deciduous and broadleaved evergreen trees, to tropical rainforests, and seldom moves far from water sources.

The sambar prefers the dense cover of deciduous shrubs and grasses, although the exact nature of this varies enormously with the environment, because of its wide Asian range. Home range sizes are probably equally variable, but have been recorded as 1,500 ha for males and 300 ha for females in India.
The watcher The stag watches approach cautiously, majestically.  Geotagged,India,John Rowell,Rusa unicolor,Sambar,Winter,adhocphotographer,bandipur,karnataka

Behavior

Sambar are nocturnal or crepuscular. The males live alone for much of the year, and the females live in small herds of up to 16 individuals. Indeed, in some areas, the average herd consists of only three or four individuals, typically consisting of an adult female, her most recent young, and perhaps a subordinate, immature female. This is an unusual pattern for deer, which more commonly live in larger groups. They often congregate near water, and are good swimmers. Like most deer, sambar are generally quiet, although all adults can scream or make short, high-pitched sounds when alarmed. However, they more commonly communicate by scent marking and foot stamping.

Sambar feed on a wide variety of vegetation, including grasses, foliage, browse, fruit, and water plants, depending on the local habitat. They also consume a great variety of shrubs and trees.

Sambar have been seen congregating in large herds in protected areas such as national parks and reserves in India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. In Taiwan, sambar along with sika deer, have been raised on farms for their antlers, which they drop annually in April to May and are highly prized for use as knife handles and as grips for handguns.

Stags wallow and dig their antlers in urine-soaked soil, and then rub against tree trunks. Sambar are capable of remarkable bipedalism for a deer species, and stags stand and mark tree branches above them with their antlers. A stag also marks himself by spraying urine on his own face with a highly mobile penis. Despite their lack of antlers, female sambar readily defend their young from most predators, which is relatively unusual among deer. When confronted by pack-hunting dholes or domestic dogs, a sambar lowers its head with an erect mane and lashes at the dogs. Sambar prefer to attack predators in shallow water. Several sambar may form a defensive formation, touching rumps and vocalising loudly at the dogs. When sensing danger, a sambar stamps its feet and makes a ringing call known as "pooking" or "belling".

They are favourite prey of tigers and Asiatic lions. In India, the sambar can comprise up to nearly 60% of the prey selected by the Bengal tiger. Anecdotally, the tiger is said to even mimic the call of the sambar to deceive it while hunting. They also can be taken by crocodiles, mostly the sympatric mugger crocodiles and estuarine crocodiles. Leopards and dholes largely prey on only young or sickly deer, though they can attack healthy adults, as well.
Sambar stag portrait These guys are a lot more skittish than the Chital in the forest, and for good reason, they are the preferred food for tigers! So, to have one brave enough to allow me to get close enough to get a close portrait is a rarity and a privilege! :) 2015,Bandipur Tiger Reserve,Geotagged,India,John Rowell,Karnataka,Rusa unicolor,Sambar,Tiger Reserve,Winter,adhocphotographer,asia,copyright

Habitat

The sambar prefers the dense cover of deciduous shrubs and grasses, although the exact nature of this varies enormously with the environment, because of its wide Asian range. Home range sizes are probably equally variable, but have been recorded as 1,500 ha for males and 300 ha for females in India.Sambar are nocturnal or crepuscular. The males live alone for much of the year, and the females live in small herds of up to 16 individuals. Indeed, in some areas, the average herd consists of only three or four individuals, typically consisting of an adult female, her most recent young, and perhaps a subordinate, immature female. This is an unusual pattern for deer, which more commonly live in larger groups. They often congregate near water, and are good swimmers. Like most deer, sambar are generally quiet, although all adults can scream or make short, high-pitched sounds when alarmed. However, they more commonly communicate by scent marking and foot stamping.

Sambar feed on a wide variety of vegetation, including grasses, foliage, browse, fruit, and water plants, depending on the local habitat. They also consume a great variety of shrubs and trees.

Sambar have been seen congregating in large herds in protected areas such as national parks and reserves in India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. In Taiwan, sambar along with sika deer, have been raised on farms for their antlers, which they drop annually in April to May and are highly prized for use as knife handles and as grips for handguns.

Stags wallow and dig their antlers in urine-soaked soil, and then rub against tree trunks. Sambar are capable of remarkable bipedalism for a deer species, and stags stand and mark tree branches above them with their antlers. A stag also marks himself by spraying urine on his own face with a highly mobile penis. Despite their lack of antlers, female sambar readily defend their young from most predators, which is relatively unusual among deer. When confronted by pack-hunting dholes or domestic dogs, a sambar lowers its head with an erect mane and lashes at the dogs. Sambar prefer to attack predators in shallow water. Several sambar may form a defensive formation, touching rumps and vocalising loudly at the dogs. When sensing danger, a sambar stamps its feet and makes a ringing call known as "pooking" or "belling".

They are favourite prey of tigers and Asiatic lions. In India, the sambar can comprise up to nearly 60% of the prey selected by the Bengal tiger. Anecdotally, the tiger is said to even mimic the call of the sambar to deceive it while hunting. They also can be taken by crocodiles, mostly the sympatric mugger crocodiles and estuarine crocodiles. Leopards and dholes largely prey on only young or sickly deer, though they can attack healthy adults, as well.
Royal stag || Tadoba || Jan 2020
https://www.facebook.com/MohammedSalmanPics/ Rusa unicolor,Sambar

Reproduction

Though they mate and reproduce year-round, sambar calving peaks seasonally. Oestrus lasts around 18 days. The male establishes a territory from which he attracts nearby females, but he does not establish a harem. The male stomps the ground, creating a bare patch, and often wallows in the mud, perhaps to accentuate the colour of his hair, which is typically darker than that of females. While they have been heard to make a loud, coarse bellow, rutting stags are generally not vocal. Large, dominant stags defend nonexclusive territories surrounded by several smaller males, with which they have bonded and formed alliances through sparring. When sparring with rival males, sambar lock antlers and push, like other deer, but uniquely, they also sometimes stand on their hind legs and clash downward into each other in a manner similar to species of goat-antelope. Females also fight on their hind legs and use their fore legs to hit each other in the head.

Courtship is based more on tending bonds rather than males vocally advertising themselves. Females move widely among breeding territories seeking males to court. When mounting, males do not clasp females. The front legs of the male hang loosely and intromission takes the form of a "copulatory jump".

Gestation probably lasts around 8 months, although some studies suggest it may be slightly longer. Normally, only one calf is born at a time, although twins have been reported in up to 2% of births. Initially weighing 5 to 8 kg, the calves are usually not spotted, although some subspecies have light spots which disappear not long after birth. The young begin to take solid food at 5 to 14 days, and begin to ruminate after one month. Sambar have lived up to 28 years in captivity, although they rarely survive more than 12 years in the wild.
Sambar habitat || Magadhi, Bandhavgarh || Oct 2021 Rusa unicolor,Sambar

Evolution

Genetic analysis shows that the closest living relative of the sambar is probably the Javan rusa of Indonesia. This is supported by reports that sambar can still interbreed to produce fertile hybrids with this species.

Fossil sambar are known from the early Pleistocene, although they are very similar in form to early deer species from the Pliocene, with less of a resemblance to more modern cervines. The species probably arose in the tropical reaches of southern Asia, and later spread across its current range. "Epirusa" and "Eucladoceros" have both been proposed as possible ancestors of the living species and its closest relatives.

References:

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Taxonomy
KingdomAnimalia
DivisionChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderArtiodactyla
FamilyCervidae
GenusRusa
SpeciesR. unicolor