I was walking with my family in the late winter off trail near Paradise Pond, the only pond you go by on the Loblolly trail, and my wife spotted a newly dropped antler. I say it was new because it did not have any gnaw marks on it yet and it is a calcium rich delicacy of the forest for many animals. My son and daughter carried it around like a war trophy the rest of the afternoon, each making sure of getting equal time and trying to gore each other at unsuspecting times.
Antlers are regrown and shed each year and are in fact, the fastest growing bone in the animal kingdom. Whitetails can grow up to a ¼ inch a day. Unlike other deer bones, antlers have no marrow. Research has shown that deer’s ribs become brittle and can break easily during antler growth, such is the draw of minerals from the body at this time.
In North Carolina, most antlers are fully developed by the end of August, after which the bucks, with some aggression, rub the velvet (thick velvety skin with many blood vessels that cover and nourished the antlers) off. By late January here, when the mating frenzy has subsided, antlers loosen and fall to the ground.
Generally, only males have antlers, the caribou being the exception in the deer family where all females have antlers, but there are anomaly’s for whitetails as well. One study in the late 1950’s from Kenneth Doutt and John C. Donaldson showed that about 1 doe in 4024 has antlers. This can be caused by hormone imbalances, hermaphroditism, and rare abnormal tumor growth secreting male hormones. We can only hope that these rare cases are treated better than Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was during the Reindeer games.
You can’t really tell how old a deer is by the size of its antlers but deer reach their full physical growth in about 4 years, and then they may have more nourishment to grow the mega rack of antlers that adorn many living room walls. It is the combination of food, age and heredity that makes or breaks rack size. With the right diet and right heredity, bucks will have a bigger rack each year. When a buck gets old, rack size may dwindle.
Long drawn out fights between bucks are rare, and they are made up mainly of bluffs and posturing (much like a lot of human fights) though charges happen, followed by a lot of antler pushing till one buck tires and retires from the fight. Injuries do happen, but are rare, since most of the animals fighting are somewhat evenly matched. The old saying that it is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog, does not generally apply to deer.
Antlers are not for protection from predators, if they were, they would be retained well into the winter period of deep snow in the north where deer are at their most defenseless. Deer protect themselves by rearing up and slashing with the front feet and this is how bucks and does fight each other as well.
Check out these videos to see that this defense is no joke. The first one gives you a feel for their power against a man and the second against a mountain lion. The mountain lion might have won in the end, but the deer gave him all he wanted.
Know more to see more,