The Nara Park deer in western Japan bowed less frequently during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, likely due to a decline in tourists, a group of researchers at Nara Women's University and Hokkaido University found.

The wild deer living in and around the park in Nara Prefecture, which total about 1,200 and are protected as a natural treasure, are famous for bowing to tourists for "deer crackers," a snack sold at the park for the deer.

The group studied the number of deer that gathered at three locations, including Todaiji Temple's Nandaimon gate, a hot spot for tourists giving deer the snack. The group also counted the number of deer bowing.

The study showed that the average number of deer that had shown up at the locations fell to 65 in 2020 from 167 in 2019, before the pandemic.

The average number of times a deer bowed to people when shown the deer cracker fell to 6.4 in June 2020 to June 2021 from 10.2 in September 2016 to January 2017.

The figure plunged to around 2.0 in July 2020, when the park experienced an especially large decline in the number of visitors.

The group found that the number of times a deer bowed fluctuated in tandem with the number of tourists.

"We had not expected the number of bowing by deer changed in such a short period of time," said Yoichi Yusa, professor of animal ecology at Nara Women's University and a member of the group.

"We were able to observe the flexibility of deer's behavior in tune with the rise and fall of people," Yusa said.

The group's findings were published in U.S. journal PLOS One.