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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.

Sidebar

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.

giraffe-72

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.

velvet-1

The antlers of all the Ontario cervids have, by now, been free of velvet for weeks. The crowns are now hardened bone, slowly shrinking as they dry.

Antler velvet is a hairy skin that is a component of growing antler bone. It’s very sensitive as it covers a mass of blood vessels and nerves that will quickly transform into a crown of antlers. Antlers are said to be one of the fastest growing tissues found in the animal world.

On whitetails, the velvet is shed quickly and, it seems, in private. I’ve never witnessed a buck shedding its velvet; only once I saw a buck that had obviously just shed its velvet (the buck in the photo). Fresh red blood still smeared the whitish bone. I once watched a bull moose losing its velvet; it used the dead, overhead branches of a large spruce to rake its antlers and as the velvet sloughed off, the bull would shake its head, grab velvet in its mouth, chew it off and eat it. Velvet is high in nutrients and minerals; it’s seldom allowed to go to waste.

Most hunters are fascinated by antlers and in many cultures antlers are considered to be a trophy and a memorable part of the hunt. There are a number of organizations that maintain records of large antlered specimens and there are also various standardized methodologies used to ‘score’ or rank antlers. One of the best known is the Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) that uses a scoring system with the same name. The club was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt, who was president of the USA from 1901 to 1909.

In England and Europe, the antlers of stags, notably those of red deer, have adorned the walls of castles and homes of nobility for centuries.

Antlers – presence or absence, plus size – are often an integral part of how members of the deer family are managed by game agencies everywhere.

B&C categorizes antlers as being either ‘typical’, or non-typical. Typical antlers reward size and symmetry; in other words a great typical buck has ‘perfect’ antlers, the large antlers are a mirror of each other and have no unusual or abnormal growths of points other than what is considered to be normal for the species.  Non-typicals are just that. The biggest antlers are usually non-typicals.

For the antlers of a white-tailed buck to be listed (declared a bona-fide trophy) in the typical category by B&C, it must be measured by a certified B&C scorer and have a net score of at least 170. Most trophy typical whitetails have 5 points on each antler, although some have 4 and some more than 5. The present world record was shot by Milo Hansen in 1993 in Saskatchewan. It is basically a 6X6 with two small points on the right antler; it has a net score of 213 5/8ths.

Before a set of antlers can be officially measured and scored, there must be a ‘drying’ period of at least 60 days after the harvest of the animal. Particularly large antlers may shrink a few inches in that 60 day drying period; shrinkage could continue for a few years, but once the deer has been officially scored and measured, that’s the score, regardless if it continues to shrink (marginally) over time. Antlers are measured without velvet.

An elk antler from an animal that roamed Minnesota prior to their extirpation in the mid-19th century was recently found in the bottom of a lake in that state. A large antler, it was hollow; apparently it had developed full size but not yet full ossification. It probably wound up in the lake early in the fall. How that happened is by no means clear, but if it was deposited in early fall, it must have been associated with the death of the bull, as elk antlers aren’t shed until March or April. The inner, softer, developing portion deteriorated over time in the water, but the outer core was still intact. Maybe it was still in velvet.

Another interesting antler factoid.

tinybuck-1

The deer season (and moose, for that matter) locally closes here on Dec. 15th. As I’ve been saying, I’m not likely going to shoot a deer, but I have been hunting with friends, who would very much like to fill a tag, as they don’t have any moose or venison in the freezer. For them, time is running out.

We haven’t been seeing much, and most of the deer we have seen have been what we first assumed to be does and fawns. But are they?

This year, I’ve seen some of the smallest antlered yearling bucks I’ve ever come across in my life. I had heard and read of very small antlered deer, but usually ‘button bucks’ are fawns with nubs that have not broken through skin. These deer, though, have tiny, polished, hard antlers. And I do mean tiny. The photo says it all (taken in our yard). At a distance, one would never guess such deer were bucks.

I’m almost positive this is a yearling buck because in August, I saw a yearling buck (it wasn’t a fawn – it had no spots) with what I believed to be its sibling sister in our front yard. It had tiny antlers; they were still in velvet and I recall thinking that they would have to do a lot of late season growing to be even on the small side of what most yearling bucks in this area sport. Seems they didn’t grow.

This isn’t the only deer I’ve seen or heard of with tiny little antlers this year, although the others are not quite as minuscule as the one in the photo. I saw and photographed one in town the other day that might have had an inch of antler on each side, and a good friend told me today he has one hanging around his house that also has antlers that likely measure around one inch. All tiny buttons for sure.

Antler growth on yearling bucks is often used as a measure of the health of the deer herd and the quality of the range.  While the range quality at the landscape scale is in decline mainly owing to the decline in logging activity, all the deer I’ve seen or heard of with the little antlers are from areas where the habitat is still good or, as in the case of the ‘town buck’, where there is ample access to supplemental food. So I think the tiny buttons are mostly a reflection of the severity of the previous two winters.

I suspect the does were in very poor shape when these bucks were born, as the winter of 2013-14 was one of the most severe in terms of snow depth (and cold) since winter severity records started to be kept in this region, which was 1955. To tell the truth, I’m amazed that any fawns were successfully raised following that brutal winter. Last year wasn’t as harsh, but it was still brutally cold and there was enough snow accumulation to spell trouble for the deer, especially fawns.

So even though these deer have tiny antlers now, I think they could still have quite the crown in a couple of years. The fact these deer are even alive (and they do look healthy) tells me they have good genes.

In some circles, the thinking might be that yearling deer with such tiny buttons should be culled, especially if the management goal was to produce large antlered bucks. Given the circumstances, I’d say that in this situation, such a strategy would be a mistake. However, that’s all simply speculation, as there is no management plan for trophy bucks in this area.

But it would sure be interesting to be able to track antler growth of these tiny buttoned bucks in the years to come. Definitely a research need.