Antlers fascinate, and with good reason

Posted on: May 31, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

Leaves just aren’t the same.

No one shows off trail camera pictures of the leaves on their favorite tree in spring, when they’re just budding, while breathlessly talking about what they might look like in full maturity.

You won’t find anyone lying in bed at night, unable to sleep, dreaming of their leaves, either. And no one gathers friends and family to spend winter days roaming the woods in search of last year’s leaves.

They’re deciduous, meaning they come and go, year after year after year. And they’re treated as such.

Ah, but antlers.

They’re deciduous, too. Here one year, gone the next, only to be replaced.

But they are magical, mysterious, maddening. Hunters and even non-hunters to a degree fantasize about them and treasure them as if each set might be the last of their kind, ever.

We’ll all be seeing signs of that again, and soon.

The season of antler mania – especially as it relates to North America’s number one game animal, the white-tailed deer — is here.

According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, deer antlers typically start to grow in mid-March to mid-April. The timing is triggered by photoperiod, or the amount of daylight.

As days lengthen, antler growth accelerates.

It’s at this time of year that bucks really start packing on the bone and antlers become noticeable.

In June and July, according to researchers at the Mississippi State University deer lab, antlers – the fastest growing tissue known to man – can lengthen by up to 1.5 inches a day. The biggest of bucks can go from 0 to 200 inches of antler in a 170-day time frame.

They are covered in velvet, or a hairy skin, at this time. It’s alive, full of blood vessels and nerves.

That composition is key to their development.

“Antler growth is like building a skyscraper,” writes Matt Knox, deer biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “What is first built is the structure or a frame or matrix. Think of pouring concrete; you must first build a form. That is what deer do. During the early summer, deer antlers are soft to the touch or spongy.

“Towards the middle of summer, as the form is being finished, the deer begins to ‘pour’ the bone.”

When antlers harden, they shed their velvet. That usually occurs in September.

The result, come October, is the headgear so many dream of.

What a particular deer’s antlers look like – even from year to year – varies widely.

Some of that is natural. Deer, given the right amount of food and other habitat, will produce bigger antlers over time.

They make the biggest jumps early on, Knox wrote.

Bucks display their first set of antlers at 1.5 years old. If they survive another year, their antlers will be noticeably larger at 2.5 and 3.5. They’ll continue growing larger each year thereafter – all the way up to about 7.5 – but the rate of growth slows.

After 7.5 years of age, their antlers get smaller again, not necessarily in terms of points, but in mass.

That’s all assuming good health, though.

Injury can alter a deer’s antlers. Jeannine Fleegle, a biologist with the Game Commission, writes that is a buck injures an antler while it’s still in velvet, it can swell and fill with blood. The result might be a “club-like” antler.

If the injury occurs at the base of the antler, or pedicle, the deformity could persist for several years and several sets of antlers.

“There is also something known as ‘contralateral effects.’ where injury to one side of the body causes antler deformity on the opposite side,” Fleegle wrote. “The reasons for this are unknown. And exactly how the antler will be altered from its original size or shape is anyone’s guess.”

Hunters pursue antlers feverishly throughout fall and winter. Even those who don’t hunt with them uppermost in mind often hang on to small sets, just as reminders of their hunt or experience.

Then, winter comes. Daylight hours shorten. Food supplies get scarce. The living is hard.

And deer, focused primarily on survival, shed their antlers, with those in northern states typically beating their southern counterparts to the punch.

But all lose them eventually.

And then, come spring, the process starts over again.

Deciduous dreams, that’s what antlers are.

Antlers discovered

Antlers – on white-tailed deer, but also mule deer, elk and moose — are actual bone. Horns, by comparison, are composed of a hair-like tissue over a bony core.

Antlers are made up of two kinds of bone. The center is spongy. Less dense, softer and weaker, it’s considered “highly vascularized,” meaning it has lots of blood vessels. The outer shell of antlers is harder, denser bone.

The older a buck gets, the more likely it is to exhibit non-typical, or abnormal, points.

Female deer, or does, can sometimes grow antlers. When that happens, it usually means one of two things. Does with velvet covered antlers usually have normal female reproductive tracts and can bear fawns.

Then there are “pseudohermophrodites.” Those are does with hardened antlers. In reality, they are male deer with female external genitalia, but male organs internally.

In rare cases, bucks can grow more than two antlers. It’s all about the pedicle. In the wild, a buck with more than two likely suffered an injury to the pedicle, resulting in some of its cells being redistributed elsewhere on its head. The result: an extra antler at the spot where those cells took root. How powerful is the urge to grow in those cells? Researchers have transplanted cells to mice and they have grown antler-like projections. Cells have even been transplanted to the lower leg of a deer and an antler has grown from the leg.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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Bob Frye is a storyteller with a passion for all things outdoors. He hunts, he fishes, he hikes, he camps, he paddles, backpacks and snowshoes depending on the season. If he’s not an expert at anything, it’s because he’s passionate to try a little bit of everything.