When thinking of deer, most people visualize the typical deer buck with antlers. However, not all deer look alike.
With very few exceptions, does don’t have antlers, and fawns don’t have them either. That’s because the antler growth is linked to the testosterone level and is closely related to mating.
Deer shed their antlers when the level of testosterone drops during rut, generally in late winter. Bucks usually start growing their antlers back in spring so that they can reach full size to attract females during the next mating season. In most species, does only grow antlers if they have a higher testosterone level. However, this is rare.
Read on to find out why deer grow antlers, why they shed them, and whether shedding antlers hurts the animal.
Why Do Deer Shed Their Antlers?
Taking a walk in the forest during late winter or early spring – generally between February and March – could bring you across a pleasant surprise: a deer antler.
Shed antlers may not be worth much, but they can be a nice souvenir from your stroll. Or you could use them in numerous DIY projects. But where does the antler come from? Was the animal hurt or injured when the antler was cast?
Antler shedding is a natural process in deer. Bucks shed their antlers every year, generally after the mating season, during rut.
The reason deer shed their antlers is linked to the mating season and the antlers’ role in mating, as well as the antler development from year to year.
Unlike other ruminating species – such as sheep or goats – deer don’t grow permanent horns and don’t generally use their antlers for purposes other than mating.
The sole purpose of antlers is that of asserting dominance and attracting females. Generally, the strongest males with the largest antlers breed the most females.
When they have them, bucks may also use their antlers when competing for non-reproductive reasons, such as access to prime feeding spots. However, this behavior is rare.
The Antler Growth Cycle
Male deer usually grow antlers for the first time when they reach sexual maturity, generally after they reach one year of age, even though a pedicle usually shows in the first few months of life.
These first antlers are not very large – they are about 10 to 25% of their maximum future size.
Each year, bucks shed their antlers – a process known as casting – to make room for the new antlers to grow. Each year, the new antlers are larger than the ones they had before, ultimately reaching their peak size in about five to six years.
Not only do the antlers grow larger, but they also have a different shape with each regrowth.
The casting season varies from breed to breed (and geographical area where the deer live). For instance, the North American white-tailed deer cast their antlers in late winter (around February or March), but European roe deer lose their antlers in November.
This happens because the mating season is different for North American and European deer.
New antlers show up as buds covered in velvet. Their growth is slow at first, only speeding up as the mating season approaches. In North America, between June and July, bucks’ antlers grow rapidly, with as much as two inches per week.
The antlers reach their full size in September, when their mineralization is complete and the velvet is shed. Bucks generally shed the velvet in less than 24 hours, by rubbing their antlers against tree bark and other rough surfaces.
Well after the breeding season, as the testosterone level drops during winter, the antlers’ bones start losing minerals. Their attachment to the head becomes weakened and the weight of the antler is generally the reason why it casts.
The main reason deer may lose their antlers before rut is stress.
When Do Female Deer Grow Antlers?
In most deer species, does don’t have antlers. There is only one exception – female reindeer grow antlers to compete for food with males and other females.
However, in this species, antlers have a functional role due to the harsh environmental conditions in the areas where reindeer live.
In all other species, female deer could grow antlers if they have a higher level of testosterone or if they are pseudohermaphrodites.
Pseudohermaphrodite deer are actually males, but their external sexual organs look like those of females.
Does affected by hormonal imbalances (higher levels of testosterone) can generally become pregnant and give birth to healthy fawns.
However, they grow antlers – albeit a lot smaller than those of bucks – and shed/regrow them in the same periods males cast and grow their antlers.
Does Antler Shedding Hurt?
Antler growing and shedding is a natural process, but this doesn’t mean that it comes without risks.
While people generally believe that shedding antlers doesn’t hurt the buck, the truth is that the spot where the antlers detach themselves from the skull becomes an open wound.
This wound might create discomfort and even pain, and it could lead to complications.
Brain abscesses due to bacterial infections are some of the most common complications.
Bacteria generally enters through the pedicle of a recently shed antler and can cause skull bone damage.
Both bone damage and brain abscesses are generally painful, with symptoms ranging from aggressiveness to swollen joints, blindness, and even death.
Scientists believe that brain abscesses and complications are less frequent in deer living in arid regions, due to the bacteria’s inability to survive in dry conditions.
So, contrary to popular belief, antler shedding can hurt the deer and could even lead to fatal conditions.
Male deer grow antlers to assert dominance and impress females during the mating season. The antlers’ primary role is to aid in reproduction, and their growth and casting is closely related to the mating and rut seasons.
In North America, antler shedding generally occurs between February and March. Females that develop antlers also lose them in this period.
Bucks spend the rest of the winter antlerless, then their headgear starts to regrow stronger and bigger than before, generally between April and September.
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