A rare death match between a golden eagle and a young deer was inadvertently captured by a camera trap set up to snap pictures of Russia's endangered Siberian tigers.
The sika deer (Cervus nippon) was found dead in December 2011 by a researcher tending to the camera trap, which was being used to monitor the habits and movements of tigers in Lazovsky State Nature Reserve in Russia's Far East.
Conservationist Linda Kerley, of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), recalled that something felt immediately wrong as she approached the carcass.
"There were no large carnivore tracks in the snow, and it looked like the deer had been running and then just stopped and died," Kerley, who runs the ZSL's camera trap project, said in a statement. "It was only after we got back to camp that I checked the images from the camera and pieced everything together. I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
The camera trap footage only captured two seconds of the attack in three photos, but it showed quite clearly an adult golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) clinging to the young deer's back. [Camera Trapped: Elusive Wildlife Caught in Photos]
"I've been assessing deer causes of death in Russia for 18 years," Kerley said in a statement. "This is the first time I've seen anything like this."
An adult golden eagle can weigh more than 12 lbs. (5.4 kilograms) and have a wingspan of about 7.5 feet (2.3 meters). Though they do not regularly prey on deer, the raptors are known for ambitious attacks on large animals, the researchers said. The birds, however, have not been known to attack people, despite what the "golden eagle" hoax video would have viewers believe.
"The scientific literature is full of references to golden eagle attacks on different animals from around the world, from things as small as rabbits — their regular prey — to coyote and deer, and even one record in 2004 of an eagle taking a brown bear cub," Jonathan Slaght, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a statement. (ZSL and WCS have been partnering on tiger monitoring in the region.)
"In this case I think Linda just got really lucky and was able to document a very rare, opportunistic predation event," Slaght added.
Kerley and Slaght described the strange case in this month's issue of the Journal of Raptor Research.