Understanding Deer Antler Growth and Development

Deer With Antlers

Deer With Antlers

Ever wonder how deer antlers grow and develop into large, full-sized racks? Some people are surprised to hear that male deer (bucks) shed their antlers on a yearly basis so they may regrew new, larger ones before the rut. This means that no matter how large a buck's antlers are, it still only took less than a year to grow. Here we'll take a closer look at some of the different factors that effect deer antler growth, and we'll reveal how they are able to grow so fast in such a short period of time.

How Fast Do Deer Antlers Grow?

It's almost mind-boggling to think that an adult buck can grow a full rack of antlers in just 12 months time. During the regrowth process, a buck's antlers can grow anywhere between 1/4 - 1/2 in length per day, usually slowing down towards the end of the cycle. With antlers growing at the pace of an inch in just a couple days, scientists label them as one of the fastest growing formations in nature.

Because of their exceptionally fast growth, some scientists and health experts believe deer antlers may contain secrets to treating a wide variety of chronic illnesses. Of course, this is all speculation, but new studies are being performed each year to try and unlock the potential health and medicine benefits of antlers. In addition, the Chinese have been consuming deer antler velvet for thousands of years, and even today it's ranked as the country's second most popular traditional medicine (ginseng is #1).

Deer Antler Development

Deer Antler Development

Factors That Affect Deer Antler Growth and Development

As you may already know, all male deer (family Cervidae) grow antlers. They are used for warding off predators, sparring with other deer, and they attract female deer (doe) during the mating season (like a male peacock's feathers). Once the mating season is over, the shedding process will begin where the antlers become loose around the base and eventually fall off. Sometime between late winter and early spring, the cycle will repeat with a new set of antlers blossoming out of circular areas on the buck's head known as pedicles (see deer antler parts and terminology for more info).

Age

The single most influential factor in the size of a deer's antlers is age. Over the course of a buck's life, his antlers will generally become increasingly larger and more complex with each passing the year. The first year he may only have 2 small horn-like antlers coming out the pedicles, while the following year these may branch out into 4 points. Each year thereafter, the buck's antlers will increase in mass and circumference until their growth. The growth does, however, begin to slow down once the buck reaches 7-10 years of age.

Genetics

The second most influential factor in the size of a deer's antlers is genetics. If a buck comes from a family with other large-antlered bucks, then he will likely possesses them as well. This is how certain deer farms are able to breed bucks with ridiculously large antlers (along with feeding them growth hormones). Deer farms and preserves will selectively breed deer based on the size of their antlers (known as culling). Of course, genetics isn't an entirely accurate way to predict the size of a deer's antlers, but it does play a critical role.

Nutrition

A third factor that affects deer antler growth and development is nutrition. Bucks who aren't meeting their nutritional needs may suffer from shorter, less complex antlers. This may happen simply due to a lack of easily accessible food sources, it can occur from a deer eating the wrong types of food. Deer require a diet rich in protein, phosphorus, calcium vitamins.

Health

The last possible factor that may affect antler growth and development is the health of the deer. Certain disease, illness and fungal infections will attack the antler structure, causing it to weaken or have its growth stunted.

Alternatively, physical injury or trauma can also affect a deer's antlers. A deer running away from a predator in the woods may accidentally run into a tree or dense brush where their antlers get tangled up or broken. Typically, the antler will continue growing after breaking, but the affected side will be shorter or pointed in a different direction as a result.

Deer Antler Growth Cycle

Deer Antler Growth Cycle

Deer Antler Growth Cycle

Deer first begin to grow antlers between early winter and late spring. At this time, small stub-like antlers will start their growth from the base of the pedicle. The antlers are soft and covered with a velvet-like layer of blood vessels used to feed it nutrients. It's important to note that antlers velvet-covered antlers during these early stages are fragile and more susceptible to damage than fully-developed antlers. In fact, it's not uncommon for velvet antlers to bend or damage from physical trauma.

The velvet-like layer covering the antlers will slowly begin to dry up between the months of mid August to early September. The blood stops to the antlers and the velvet will begin to flake off. This may occur naturally, or the deer may speed up the process by rubbing his antlers on a tree. If you've ever noticed the bark rubbed off the side of a tree, chances are it was from a buck trying to remove some of the excess velvet covering his antlers.

The antler growth cycle is complete once the velvet layer has fallen off (usually only takes 24 hours once it begins to peel). At this time, the deer's antlers are hard and durable, making them useful for warding off predators or sparring with other male deer in hopes of winning a mate. The antlers will remain hard until the breeding season draws to a close, at which point they will begin to demineralize and lose their strength. In the following spring, the deer will shed his antlers and almost immediately after the cycle will repeat.

References:

http://extension.missouri.edu/p/G9486