What's the most unusual predator in today's world? Arguably, it's humans. And in the case of trophy hunters, successful kills are often followed by a 'post and boast' online. That habit of modern trophy hunters recently resulted in a frenzy over the social media postings of Texan teen Kendall Jones and TV host Melissa Bachman. Wildlife scientists too are interested in trophy hunting, although their research has mostly focused on the hunted. But now, new research is turning the tables, mining the 'kill and tell' habits of modern human hunters to find out more about them.

“It seemed to be an untapped source of data to help us understand a little more about this peculiar predator.”

"Humans are just so different from any other vertebrate predator out there," says Dr. Chris Darimont, Hakai-Raincoast Conservation Scholar & Assistant Professor at University of Victoria’s Department of Geography, who co-led the recent study with undergraduate Rosie Child. Compared to other hunters of the animal kingdom, "one of the ways in which we differ is the way we target animals," he says. In most of the natural world, predators go after the newly born or the nearly dead. But human hunters tend to target the large, reproductively aged adults, explains Darimont, with all sorts of consequences.

One of those consequences, something Darimont has studied before, is the phenomenon of shrinking body or antler size. No, this is not the work of sci-fi shrink rays – it’s referring to long-term shifts in animal and antler size as hunters and fishers selectively kill larger individuals. Shrinking horn size over time was seen in bighorn rams (Ovis canadensis) in Alberta between 1974 and 2011. Another study on trophy hunting in Zimbabwe revealed that horn length declined over time for impalas and sable antelopes from 1974-2008. 

The researchers downloaded and assessed 4,300 images of hunters with their kills (like this one, which was not part of the study). Image: Pierre Pradervand.

But while many studies have focused on the hunted, Darimont and Child wondered about the trophy hunters themselves. Online sources, thought Darimont, "seemed to be an untapped, and potentially rich source of data to help us understand a little more about this peculiar predator". So Darimont and Child took to the internet, downloading and assessing 4,300 images of hunters posing with cervid kills (cervids are members of the deer family that include deer, moose and elk).

Their photographs came from the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, though likely included hunters from all over the world who travel to these destinations for guided hunts. For a successful hunt in the wild, large predators need both brain and brawn – but Darimont and Child wanted to know if such traits still matter for modern human hunters.

They scored each photograph to provide an estimate of hunter age, relative body mass and whether camouflage was worn. They also noted whether the hunter was pictured alongside a guide and scored the number of tines (prongs) on the antler of the animal that had been killed. Then, they examined their data to see if any of the measured traits could predict who was posing with bigger kills.

Camouflage, at least according to their online treasure trove, didn’t seem to matter. Though camouflage clothing is a multi-billion dollar industry, and 80% of those in the photographs were wearing it, those in camo were no more likely to be posing with a big buck or bull. Hunter age had no effect. And as for the idea that lean, muscular hunters have greater success ... that didn’t seem to hold up either. Trophy hunters didn't fit the stereotype of the burly man often seen in ads for hunting gear. In fact, for hunters without a guide, paunchier hunters had modestly higher odds of being seen posing with larger prey. Perhaps not surprisingly, the presence of guides did seem to matter, their specialised knowledge likely increasing a hunter’s chances of killing larger prey.

The study's results suggest that real-life hunters don't fit the popular 'burly hunter' stereotype. Image: Kevin Chang, Flickr.

Darimont acknowledges that there are potential biases in the study – hair dye may have flummoxed their ability to truly assess age, guides may selectively post photographs of their largest kills, and it could be that the traits of these post-and-boast hunters don’t reflect the wider population of trophy hunters.

Nevertheless, Darimont suggests that their study provides useful insights into humans as hunters in the developed world. Advanced weaponry and technology seem to have replaced the need for humans to conform to the demands that non-human predators face in being fast, lean and cryptic. 

So how might this research help inform wildlife conservation? Darimont says: "[If] wildlife managers are worried about how hunting pressure changes animal size over time, they might do well to look at size quotas." More broadly, Darimont suggests we go further to ask how and why we, as human hunters, are different, exploring what motivates us, especially given the incredible consequences of our actions.

“I think there’s a little bit of trophy hunter in every hunter,” suggests Darimont, who is himself both hunter and conservation scientist. “It doesn’t matter if they’re after snow geese, white-tailed deer or black bear. People are often after the large individuals. And you’ve got to ask yourself why.”

Top header image: Marta, Flickr