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Whitetail Deer Buck

Photo: Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

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Antlers: for display and dominance

By Kevin McKeon, Maine Master Naturalist

Antlers on a whitetail deer buck, or male, are his pride and serve many purposes, as do most things in nature. His antlers attract does, or females, by displaying his health and vigor and can ward off potential mating rivals. But at a rival’s challenge, they’re his dueling weapons to prove his dominance, locking against his rival’s antlers, pushing and shoving, until the weaker buck retreats.

Antler size depends on the buck’s age, genetics, and nutrition. Most of the young buck’s nutrition is channeled to body development rather than antler growth. A typical healthy buck’s antlers will grow bigger each year until he reaches peak maturity; then the antler size will begin to degrade. The average size for a mature buck is eight points — the number of tips on the horns — but a mounted head in a Bass Pro Shop has 31! Watch a video about it here.

Antlers begin their springtime growth in a yearling buck as pedicles, or points at which they emerge from their attachment to the skull. As the days get longer, the increased light triggers hormonal changes in the buck, telling him to begin growing his antlers. And grow they do – about half an inch a day! In fact, antlers are the fastest growing bones of any mammal, reaching their full size in a few months. During growth, these bones are covered with a very soft skin called velvet, which supplies the blood, oxygen, and other nutrients needed for growth. Antler injuries during the vulnerable, soft velvet stage sometimes result in an atypical rack, with horns and points growing out in all directions; the 31-pointer mentioned above is such a rack.

Another change happens in late summer, as the buck enters the “Season of The Rut,” or mating season. The does release a scent, attracting bucks. This causes bucks’ antler growth to stop. The antlers harden, and the velvet falls off —usually with the buck scraping it off on small trees and bushes. This scraping habit also aids in marking a buck’s territory: As the buck rubs his antlers, he also rubs the wood with his scent glands located on his forehead and eye areas. This scent also attaches to his antlers and gets carried by the breeze, telling the other bucks that he’s around, he’s healthy, and he’s ready to take on the world!

When mating is over, the antlers’ attachments to the skulls weaken and drop. There’s usually a four- to eight-day difference between each antler drop. Sometimes, he’ll keep his antlers well into winter. After dropping, antlers become useful as food for other animals. Squirrels, mice, porcupines, and even coyotes nosh on dropped antlers, which are a source of essential nutrients like calcium and phosphorus.

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