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Remember the Disney movie “Bambie?” If you’re a hard-core deer hunter, more than likely your first thought when seeing the little buck’s father was Look at those antlers!
Hunting equipment and firearms preferences change from year-to-year, but for hunters, the one constant is the dogged pursuit of white-tailed deer with headgear. Oh sure, there are “meat hunters” who claim antlers don’t enter into their decision on whether to squeeze the trigger. But ask them this question: if you had a big fat doe standing next to a massive 12-pointer with double drop tines, all conditions being equal, which one would you shoot? I defy you to find me one hunter who would pass on Bambie’s Old Man.
Hunters dream of, talk about, and proudly show off bucks with massive “horns,” but few know just how special antlers really are.
For starters, deer don’t have horns – they have antlers. Horns have a bone core, but are mainly made of carotene, the same stuff in our fingernails. They grow from the base and are never cast. In contrast, antlers are 100 percent bone, grow from the tips and are shed annually. Deer, elk, moose and stag have antlers, while sheep, goats and antelope have horns.
Antlers grow from specialized tissues called pedicels, found on the top of a buck's skull. As each antler grows, nourishment (from blood) is provided from a spongy outer skin, or velvet, through the core of each pedicel.
“Transplanting material from a pedicle to other skeletal regions results in growth of antler tissue in the transplanted area,” said Kip Adams, director of education in the North for the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA). “Researchers have been able to grow antlers on mice by transplanting pedicle material to the top of their heads.”
The annual growing and shedding of antlers is triggered by photoperiod (daylight length), which affects testosterone production. By adjusting the amount of daylight bucks receive, researchers have been able to make them grow up to three sets of antlers in one year.
Deer antlers can grow an inch or more per day, making them the fastest normal growing tissue known to man. Only tumors and embryos grow at this rate. For humans, it’s like growing a new set of arms annually.
Dwindling daylight sends a signal to the pituitary gland, which in turn tells the testes to increase testosterone production. Increased testosterone causes velvet to come off and antlers to harden. Bucks don’t need to rub their velvet off– it’ll fall off all on its own.
Hunters often see bucks with antler abnormalities or deformities and want to know what caused them.
“Most deformities are caused by injury and not be genetics,” explained Adams.
Research has shown that nearly 50 percent of all wild bucks will develop an antler abnormality – if they live long enough. Here’s a list of antler abnormalities hunters often see, along with the most likely cause.
|Base and entire antler deformed||Pedicle injury.|
|Normal bases but unusual tines||Injury during later growth stages.|
|Third antler growing from skull||Pedicle injury|
|Drop tines/sticker points||Genetically expressed by 5 - 7 years of age.|
|Velvet never comes off||Injury to the testicles during antler development.|
|Doe with velvet antlers||Enough testosterone to grow antlers, but not enough to harden them.|
|One well-developed/the other deformed||
How long a buck has an antler deformity is based on injury severity. Minor injuries usually only affect antler development for one year, while severe injuries cause permanent damage.
In late winter/early spring, testosterone decreases, causing antlers to fall off. Early antler casting is usually caused by a severe injury or nutrition deficiency.
Hunters and deer managers often think they can produce bucks with trophy antlers by culling the small ones.
“The greatest misconception is that we can manage genetics of free-ranging bucks by shooting inferior ones,” said Brian Murphy, QDMA CEO. “The genetic pool of wild deer is vast, so that’s like throwing a cup of fresh water in the ocean and thinking you’ll change the saline content.
To get bigger-racked bucks, bring the doe to buck sex ratio into alignment (2:1), provide good nutrition and let young bucks walk.
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