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Whitetail Deer Antlers

Definition of antlers: Whitetail antlers are an amazing example of nature’s handiwork. They range from tiny needle sharp spikes to awesome typical and nontypical racks. Antlers develop into every size and shape. But antler size, growth and irregularities are often misunderstood by many deer hunters.

A great deal of misinformation has been passed along by hunters for decades, and a major mistake is commonly made by sportsmen who don’t know that antlers are not horns, and horns are not antlers.

Antlers are made of dead bone, and are yearly growths that begin emerging from two pedicels on the buck’s head in late winter and early spring. Antlers reach full growth in late summer or early fall while still covered with a living, furry tissue called velvet.

The velvet is rubbed off in early fall, and each set of hard antlers will have an individual distinctive shape and size before being shed between December and February. Antlers are normally branched (except for spikehorns), and maturity, good nutrition, lack of stress and good genes determine antler size and formation. As a rule, only male deer grow antlers. But one female (doe) in several thousand whitetail does will grow antlers because of a hormone imbalance.

Horns, rather than antlers, are living bone that is covered with hard layers of skin. They are typically unbranched and permanently established on the animal’s head. Wild sheep, for example, continue to grow horns throughout their lives. Horns also are found on bison, cows, goats and musk ox in North America. John Ozoga, a retired DNR research biologist at the Cusino Wildlife Research Station near Munising, is a valuable source of information on whitetails, their behavior, antler growth and dynamics. “Antlers are status symbols of male supremacy among deer,” Ozoga said. “They serve primarily in highly ritualized sparring matches and more serious fighting among bucks to determine dominance order and male mating privileges before the breeding season. “Many antler peculiarities such as rack shape, tine length and configuration, and other specific features, are unquestionably hereditary. But skeletal injury, or direct injury to the growing antler, can produce abnormal antler formations.” Ozoga said those formations shouldn’t be confused with malformations caused by poor nutrition, old age or poor genetics. He said genetically or nutritionally controlled antler abnormalities show on both beams. A one-sided antler oddity usually signifies an injury.

Good nutrition is required for button-buck fawns to grow large pedicels. Often, the larger the pedicel, the larger the antlers will be at a later age. Antlers can grow at the rate of a half-inch per day, but body growth takes precedence over antler growth. “Any deficiency in dietary energy, protein, calcium, phosphorus or certain vitamins during spring and summer can have strong negative effects,” Ozoga said. He said there are only two possible solutions to poor nutrition. One is to reduce deer numbers to more closely match the capacity of the natural habitat. The other is to improve the habitat by cutting, burning, planting or fertilizing to restore the land’s capacity to support healthy deer. If more hunters use antlerless tags this fall, and spare some of the larger bucks they encounter, the state’s deer herd will be reduced to more manageable numbers while some bucks will grow bigger antlers as they continue to mature.