Every year, Georgia deer hunters bundle up (or dress down since Georgia ‘fall’ is often ‘second summer’) and head into the woods in search of venison and bragging rights. Putting some meat in the freezer is typically a sure thing, but the bragging rights can be a little harder to come by. If you can’t seem to find that monster 150-inch swamp donkey, have no fear – now you can brag about your extensive deer antler knowledge instead.

 

“Um, they’re antlers, not horns.” – That one person who corrects everybody.

Velvet buck at Stone Mountain Park GA
Alert deer at Stone Mountain Park. Photo credit: John Kelly/GNPA

The major difference between horns and antlers is that horns don’t shed and are almost always a permanent part of the animal. Antlers are made of bone and have a velvet phase, in which blood is supplied to the antler to help it grow. Before breeding season each year, the velvet dries up and is rubbed off.

 

For real doe?

closeup of doe

Antlers aren’t just for bucks – about one in 10,000 female deer have antlers. Some does have increased testosterone levels, allowing antlers to grow. Most of the time, these antlers will be spongy, but on rare occasions, they can harden the same as male antlers.  Most “does” with hardened antlers are actually hermaphroditic deer, meaning they have both male and female reproductive parts.

 

Oh, deer; that’s amazing!

Mature white-tailed deer buck

The antlers of a buck are the fastest growing tissue in the world. After shedding old antlers, the new antlers begin to grow almost immediately and can grow more than one inch per day!  Antlers use so much calcium and phosphorus so quickly that bucks go through a temporary form of osteoporosis, stealing these minerals from their bones during antler development.

 

Just stag-gering.

buck walking through field

Antler development is controlled by three things: age, nutrition, and genetics. Most deer reach their peak antler development between 4.5 and 7.5 years of age.

 

Eat your veggies.

buck chewing grass
Photo credit: Candiss Ager

Most bucks will have 8 to 10 antler points when they reach maturity, but there are often deer that have non-typical antler development which results in more. Deer antler mass increases with age and good nutrition, but only until maturity is reached. After that, maximum mass is controlled by genetics.

 

Buck Up.

bucks locking antlers

Once antlers harden, they’re primarily used for competition during the breeding season instead of protection like horns. Locking antlers allows males to establish the pecking order and gain breeding opportunities.

 

The antlers make the buck.

ShakeragBuck_JoeBerry_001
Photo credit: Joe Berry

When it comes to deer, does make all the decisions. Does prefer larger-antlered males when looking for a potential mate. This preference is adaptive for females because larger antlers suggests increased fitness in males. Sexual selection for antlers by females is what caused antlers to evolve into such large and costly ornaments.  The energy required for bucks to grow antlers each year is equivalent to a female growing twin fawns from pregnancy to weaning.

 

Healthy Buck, Happy Hunter.

CedarCreekWMA_FA_2019_003
Buck taken during 2019 Cedar Creek WMA hunt.

When food supply is reduced in quantity or quality, it results in poor antler growth. This can happen if deer herds get too large. High concentrations of deer can destroy habitat and cause loss of essential plant species. Without their preferred browse plants, deer nutrition suffers, and antlers decrease in size as a result. This is one of the many reasons regulated hunting and habitat management are so important.

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