Deer gun season is over, but the bow and black powder seasons are not over. And the deer hunting talk amongst hunters and others this time of year often veers into the topic of antlers.
Antlers, please don’t call them horns, are produced by members of the deer family. They are typically found only on males, but in caribou or reindeer, both males and females grow antlers.
Antlers are grown and shed annually from two extensions of the skull called pedicles. The growing antlers are covered with velvet, which is a vascularized skin that provides nutrients and other supplies to the growing antler. Antlers are largely bone, and their growth comes from cartilage at the tip. And the growth is rapid. During the peak growing period the antlers may grow one-and-a-half inches per week. It might surprise you, but there are two kinds of bone in an antler. The inner portion (about half the diameter of the antler) is spongy bone that develops from the vascularized tissue, and compact bone which forms and solid stiff outer layer. The final size and shape of the antler varies with age, nutrition, genetics, and other factors.
When the antlers are fully grown, the bone dies and the velvet is shed, albeit with the help of the bucks rubbing them on some objects, often trees. Sometime after the breeding season they fall off, and the remaining pedicle is basically an open wound which “scabs over.” In deer, shortly thereafter a new set of antlers begins to grow, albeit slowly for a while.
The main driving factor for antler growth, of course, is female choice for mating. Antler growth is energetically and nutritionally quite expensive, and as such is an indicator to the does of the health and quality (or fitness) of the buck. Generally, the larger antlered bucks secure more copulations. Antlers also serve in establishing dominance among the males both within the breeding season as well as during the rest of the year. Antlers may also serve as weapons against potential predators if the animal has to stay and fight as opposed to simply running away.
And of course, once the antlers are shed it is pretty much over for the deer. But those shed antlers are loaded with protein, calcium, and phosphorus. They are small mammal candy! Small mammals such as mice, squirrels, porcupines, and others are quick to find them and start gnawing away on these nutritious snacks.