Oh, Those Amazing Antlers!

by, Jo Carol Hebert

A massive Bull Moose emerges from a Canadian lake. A regal Roosevelt Elk ventures from the edge of a forest in Oregon. A White-tailed deer bounds through the River Valley of Minnesota. Caribou huddle against the icy winds of Alaska. In our imagination of these North American deer species, we picture those great branches of antlers that crown their heads.

Antlers Are Not Horns

All males and some females of the Bovidae (Bovid) family of bison, antelopes, sheep, goats, wild and domestic cattle have horns. Horns are unbranched, permanent, and grow continuously from birth to death. Horns grow from hair follicles in the skull. Horns have a bony core covered by a smooth keratin sheath, like human hair and nails. (Exception: the Pronghorn antelope has branched horns and sheds annually).

Antlers have a spongy core and grow from a part of the skull called the pedicle. Newly formed antlers are covered with a layer of furry skin called velvet. The velvet skin is full of oxygen rich blood vessels that carry nutrients to the antler tips. This process allows the antlers to grow up to 1 inch each day. The velvet will fall off, leaving hard, enamel bone. Antlers are shed and regrow yearly.

Only males of the Cervidae (Cervid) family of deer, and elk have antlers. (Exception: the caribou (reindeer) is of the Cervid family. Both genders have antlers.)

King of the Hill

In the animal kingdom, males often exaggerate some striking feature of their appearance to attract the female. Posturing those magnificent antlers is a sign of dominance and authority. During the November rutting season of mating, there will be a sparring between males. Antlers are lowered and a contest of strength by pushing will continue until the weaker deer tires or backs down. The ‘rattling’ of antlers draws males to the area. The survival of the stronger winner ensures a healthy next generation.

Antlers – A Sign of Health and Well-Being

A great set of antlers comes at a cost to the male deer. The large amount of calcium needed to grow bone antlers is taken from the calcium needed to support the body.  A balance of body strength and fine antlers is a sign of a healthy male. ‘Antlerless’ females live longer because they do not lose calcium to antlers.

Antlers as Weapons

Antlers are a formidable weapon for the male when guarding his females against predators. Male deer will “grunt” and kick the ground to threaten a contender for the attention of the females. Then they charge. The ‘fight’ could last a few seconds or until the ‘faint-hearted’ one retreats. Sometimes the antlers will lock as they knock into each other.

Antlers As Tools

The deer family will use their antlers to ‘mark territory’. They do this by rubbing their sharp antlers on the sides of trees, scraping off the bark. This ‘claims’ that area and warns others to stay away. Sometimes, they will attack the tree so ferociously that it severs the trunk.

A Few Points About Antlers

White-tailed deer will be described by the tines on the two main branches of their antlers. Tines are the twiglike out-branching of the antlers. A deer may have 4 tines on each antler – thus being an ‘8-point’ male. Mature elk can have a 6×6 set of antlers with six points on each antler branch. Elk antlers can weigh up to 20 pounds each. A Moose is described measuring the spread across the antlers, which can be over 6 feet. Moose antlers can weigh up to 40 pounds each.

Antlers Are Part of the Life Cycle

Antlers start growing in early spring and continue to mature up to late summer and early Fall. They serve their anatomical (what the body needs) purposes. Then they break off from the skull at the base and grow again the next year. So, every set of antlers on a deer species will not be more than one year old.

How Antlers Break Off

When antlers are no longer needed, the life-giving velvet around the base of the antlers will dry up. The great weight of the antlers puts pressure on the base. Also, there is less sunlight for calcium in the winter months. These factors contribute to the weakening of the antler bone between the skull at the antler base. Those former beauties are now a heavy encumbrance to foraging for food during the winter. It would be difficult to graze on grass, roots, and herbs with antlers in the way.

Leftover Antlers – The ‘Sheds”

Discarded antlers are called ‘sheds’. The lifeless, parched (dried-out) bones are left to speak of the glory of former days. Mice, squirrels and porcupines nibble on the nutrients of calcium and protein now available to them. Gnawing on the bones is good for sharpening those little rodent teeth. Ground decay will begin to disintegrate (break up) the bone. The ants and insects will move in and suck up remaining moisture. 

Did You Know?

  • 55 species/subspecies of Cervids (deer) inhabit the earth
  • 6 main deer species are in North America, including: Mule/Black-tailed, White-tailed, Brocket, Elk, Moose, and Caribou.
  • Caribou are wild. Reindeer are domesticated Caribou.
  • Deer are ungulates. They have ‘hoofs’ (feet).
  • Deer are ruminants. They eat, swallow,‘regurgitate’ (throw up) a wad of plant food called the ‘cud’. They chew on the cud, then swallow it again. 
  • Deer have one main stomach and three extra stomach chambers.
  • Deer populations are threatened due to the 2H’s – Hunting and Habitat loss.

*Check out other Smarty Pants ‘Cervid’ Posts The Reindeer and The Moose.

*Do you have ‘antlered’ friends in your backyard? Do you see deer in woods or meadows around your home? Write a story and/or draw a picture of a species of deer.  

We would love to hear from YOU, ‘dear’ readers!

Categories: Horns & Antlers

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