We have recently heard the call for DNA testing of white-tailed deer and elk. But the questions that immediately come to mind are... what is a DNA test and why do you need one? We may have heard about DNA in school or even in the news lately but it has never really had an impact on our daily lives until the last few years. Now it may even have an influence in our business dealings.
The basics are that DNA is the genetic material of all living things and that genetic information is literally written in the DNA molecule in the form of genes. Most of us have a grasp of genetics. We understand that the physical traits of parents show up in their offspring because of genetics. This genetic information is passed on because one half of an offspring's DNA comes from the sire and the other half comes from the dam.
We hope that a buck with large antlers will pass on that genetic characteristic to his fawns. Currently, we do not know which genes are associated with trophy antlers so we cannot directly test for this characteristic. Instead, we try to control the breeding process. We select the bucks that will be used in our breeding programs and try to prevent other bucks from contributing. This is where a DNA test can be of value.
Most people are familiar with the recent celebrity murder case in which human identity was determined by a DNA test. The very same technology can be applied to any living organism, including white-tailed deer. The test is actually looking for specific pieces of DNA which are often referred to as "DNA markers". The key to the technology is that these markers behave just like genes. They come in pairs, one from the sire and one from the dam. The pattern of each of the markers is the genetic profile or genotype of the individual. This profile is constant for an individual but differs between individuals.
So why is a genetic profile useful in a breeding operation? One obvious reason is the ability to confirm identity. If a deer is stolen or poached, positive identification through genotyping can lead to the return of the animal or incarceration of the poacher. In addition, a set of shed antlers can be positively matched to a specific buck.
The genetic profile is a definite plus in any registry program. Another use for a genetic profile is to confirm a pedigree. The genetic profiles from both the fawn and alleged sire are compared. By definition, the biological sire will share markers with the fawn. If there are mismatches, then the buck is excluded as the sire. The same can be done with the genetic profile of the dam.
Using this DNA technology in a university research program, we have actually found evidence of twin fawns being sired by two different bucks. There is definitely an added value when you can actually show proof of pedigree.
The application of DNA technology to white-tailed deer is relatively recent. There are a few academic labs working in the field and there are now a few commercial labs offering these tests. Clearly these DNA tests will become an everyday part of the deer breeding business.