Wildlife & Biodiversity

Messengers of the gods: 1,400-year religious protection of sika deer in Japan’s Nara have made them genetically unique

Deer around the shrine were found to have unique mitochondrial DNA, which is passed only from mother to offspring

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 15 March 2023
Nara deer. Photo: iStock

new study in Japan has highlighted that the sika deer that live around the country’s sacred and famous Kasuga Taisha Shrine in the city of Nara, on the main island of Honshu, are genetically unique. The reason: A ban on their hunting for almost 1,500 years given their status in Shintoism, Japan’s national religion.

A team of researchers from Fukushima University found that the deer living near the shrine and the nearby Todaiji Buddhist Temple in Nara city have unique mitochondrial deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. MtDNA is only passed from mother to offspring.

“The team collected 294 muscle and blood samples of sika deer from 30 sites on the Kii Peninsula between 2000 and 2016, and classified them into eight populations spanning the Western, Central, and Eastern Kii regions,” an article on the portal Phys.org, an online science, research and technology news aggregator, stated.

“The genomic DNA was extracted and analyzed for two genetic entities: short sequence repeats (SSR), which are inherited from both parents and tend to change frequently during evolution, and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is only passed down from mother to offspring,” it added.

The team found and identified three distinct genetic groups, of which only one had a unique haplotype (S4), indicating a very restricted flow of genes across its maternal lineage.

“Interestingly, this isolated group included the deer around the Kasuga Taisha Shrine,” the article noted.

This could be possible as female sika deer tend to migrate less and prefer to remain in their own natal habitat, Toshihito Takagi, one of the co-authors of the study was quoted as saying.

The researchers have hypothesised that the deer around the shrine split off genetically from the rest of the Kii Peninsula (where the city and prefecture of Nara are located, in addition to other prefectures) 1,400 year ago, when the Shrine was established.

‘Divine Messengers’

Nara has a long history and connection with sika deer, with classic Japanese poems about the deer being composed there 1,200 years ago.

“These deer are revered in this area as the messengers of the (Shinto) gods in Kasugataisha Shrine. Deer are still considered sacred creatures by the people of Nara,” Srabani Roy Choudhury, professor in Japanese Studies at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, told Down To Earth.

She explained that the sacred deer of Nara, which are designated as national natural treasures, date back to the Nara Period of Japanese history, when the Kasuga Grand Shrine was built in the city of Nara.

“According to legend, the enshrined deity Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto appeared on top of Mount Mikasa while riding a white deer after leaving Kashima Shrine in the Ibaraki Prefecture city of Kashima in eastern Japan to protect the ancient capital of Heijokyo. Deer in Nara have since been viewed as sacred entities serving deities,” Roy Choudhary said.

However, an expansion in Japan’s human population as well as excessive hunting meant that sika deer had slowly been extirpated from large swathes of the country.

This is proved by the study which found that the deer populations in the eastern and western groups, constituting the current Kii Peninsula population, more recently diverged from their ancestor.

“Sika deer have been found throughout Japan since millennia. Shintoism believes that even a stone is supposed to have life. Effectively, it believes in what we today call ‘sustainable development’. This is inherent in the philosophy of Shinto,” Roy Choudhury said.

Since Shinto believes in a live and let live approach people did not have a problem in living alongside sika deer.

“But over several centuries, their populations were wiped out by intensive hunting and an expanding human population. It was in the 1960s that the Japanese began a movement to conserve sika deer since they were the messengers of the gods,” she noted.

Roy Choudhury said Nara and Kyoto were two places in Japan which still look mostly like what they did during the Meiji period (1868-1912). This is because they have been kept free of industrial activity unlike Osaka near Kyoto, for instance, which is highly polluted.

The research has been published in the Journal of Mammalogy.

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