Left to Right, top: Black-faced Impala, Rocky Mtn Elk; White-tailed Deer; Dr. Vince Crichton and the Tom Degare Buck (#2 Ontario non-typical from NW Ontario, taken in 1945); Middle: Pronghorn Antelope with one sheath removed; elk antler, showing pedicle which protrudes somewhat like a flat horn; Kudu; Sable (top); White-tailed Deer in velvet; Moose, chewing on velvet
First, as an aside, I have noticed that some of the buck white-tailed deer in the City of Kenora still have their antlers. Normally, deer drop their antlers in December in this part of the world, but the good conditions in the city (snow-cleared roads and walkways and handouts from people) have delayed shedding. Also, since my last post, it has snowed quite a bit more here in northwestern Ontario. Looks like another hard winter as far as the deer are concerned. I will continue to post updates as the winter progresses.
The following is an article I recently had published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. This is the unedited version, with bonus photos!
Antlers fascinate hunters and have since time immemorial. Antlers of huge stags have adorned the walls of medieval castles and European hunting lodges for centuries.
Antlers are commonly called racks. They can also be called bones, crowns and some call them horns. But horns and antlers are not the same.
According to the late Dr. Tony Bubenik, the evolution of antlers can be traced back about 40 million years. They’ve been different from horns for a long time.
Today, antlers are found only on deer. There are many kinds of deer all around the world; all are in the family Cervidae. There are fallow deer, axis deer, a group of deer called the muntjacs and others.
Here in Ontario, there are four species of deer; the white-tailed deer, moose, elk and caribou. All are native, although elk were extirpated in the 1800s, and have been re-introduced. Like deer everywhere, all Ontario deer species grow antlers.
Over the centuries, humans have done a lot of introductions of deer to areas where they never existed. People tend to like deer – it helps that they taste good and can be trophies to hunters – and so as people moved around the world, they brought with them their favourite deer.
Antlers are grown – and shed – on an annual basis. Unlike antlers, horns are permanent structures that aren’t shed, ever.
Horns occur in a large group of animals. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and forms. Typically, horns don’t show any branching. Its common that both males and females grow horns.
Sheep, goats, antelope, bison and domestic cattle, collectively known as Bovoids, all have horns.
Other groups of animals, like rhinos and giraffes, also grow horns.
Antlers are most commonly found only on males; with some exceptions (caribou females sometimes grow antlers).
During the growth phase, antlers are one of the fastest growing cellular structures in the animal kingdom. New growth can often be seen on a daily basis.
Antlers grow from knobby protuberances on the skull called pedicles. Normally, there are two pedicles, one on each side of the head.
Growing antlers are covered in a skin covering called velvet, which is extremely sensitive. On moose and caribou, there can be vivid stripes of colour in the velvet, called ‘marbling’. In velvet, antlers are warm to the touch, as they are highly vascularized (full of blood vessels) and, if damaged, can bleed profusely.
The end of the antler growing period is a time of mineralizing and hardening of the spongy antler. Once the velvet is gone, what’s left is hardened antler made of bone.
In Ontario, all deer species begin to grow their antlers in late spring. By late August and into September, the velvet is shed. It falls off quickly, usually aided by thrashing trees and shrubs. Velvet is nutritious; I once watched a moose swing its head to catch dangling strips of velvet to eat. Antlers are shed sometime during the winter or into spring.
In general, healthy, mature male deer have the largest antlers.
Antlers are often described as palmated – think moose – or cervicorn, as found on elk, whitetails and caribou. Cervicorn antlers have an obvious main beam with points.
One of the largest racks ever was found on the extinct Irish elk, an animal that ranged across Eurasia. It was about 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) tall at the shoulders, a little bit taller than a big bull moose.
It had a spectacular rack. Some Irish elk had crowns measuring over 3.6 m (12 ft) from tip to tip that weighed up to 40 kg (88 lb). The species went extinct less than 8,000 years ago, coincident with a die-off of many deer species, including a number of moose ancestors, some of which had racks that were more than 8 feet across. No moose today have a rack like that.
Climate change is thought to have been a major factor in this multi deer species die-off.
The moose, elk and caribou that roam parts of Ontario today might not have the massive bones of bygone deer, but deer racks today can be pretty darn impressive.
An Ontario moose can grow wide, palmated racks with a spread of over 4’ and weighing more than 40 lbs. The main beam of home-grown elk and caribou antlers can exceed 4’ with many long, sprouting points. Big buck white-tails, with antlers that look like a tree, occur across much of the southern half of the province.
Hunters generally classify deer antlers as ‘Typical’ or ‘Non-Typical’, also called ‘Atypical’.
Each deer species have antler characteristics that are unique. One characteristic of all typical antlers, regardless of the species, is the similarity of the right and left antler – they are virtual mirror images of one another.
Non-typical antlers usually remain paired, and can appear to be mirror images, but they have points that differ substantially from those of a typical with respect to number and placement on the main beam.
Very large non-typicals can be quite bizarre, with lots of points, bumps, burrs and great mass.
Many antlers are ‘in-between’, in that they are mostly typical but have one or more non-typical points.
Older animals tend to have bigger antlers than younger ones and also are more likely to be a non-typical. Very old animals commonly sport antlers that are substantially smaller than the antlers it had during its prime. Genetics, habitat quality and other factors, including weather and injuries, can influence antler growth.
For deer, antlers have a number of uses, notably impressing females and intimidating males during the rut. They can be formidable weapons during fights with rivals or when confronted by predators.
Like most hunters, I like deer antlers; all species, all shapes and all sizes.
Interestingly, pronghorn antelope, an animal restricted to the western plains of North America, have unique horns that, is some respects, are antler-like. It has permanent horns covered with a sheath that not only has a branch, but it’s shed on an annual basis. African antelope, animals like kudu, gemsbok and impala, don’t shed the sheath of their horns and their horns don’t have branches.
When a pronghorn sheds its sheath, very obvious, visible horns remain on the head.
When antlers are shed, all that remains are short, flattened protuberances called pedicles.
Those flattened horns on these Giraffe look sort of like a pedicle to me.