Photo of white-tail buck with antlers

Big white-tail deer bucks with big antlers.

They are a statement, that's for sure.

But how much do we actually know about antlers?

1. Antlers differ from horns.

The words antlers and horns are not interchangeable; they are completely different body parts for a variety of reasons.

First, antlers are made of bone, whereas horns are made of keratin --- like fingernails --- with a bony core. Antlers are also shed each year while horns are permanent.

Plus, horns don't branch out, they are one solid piece on each side of the head. Antlers can grow and branch in a variety of ways.

Photo of two bighorn sheep

Bighorn sheep have horns, not antlers.

Finally, antlers are only found on males --- unless there is a genetic abnormality. Horns can be found on both males and females.

2. Antler growth is a year-round process.

Antlers are shed in the spring, and the wound that is left behind on the head/skull begins to heal. After that wound scabs, the next year's antlers begin to grow, covered in a velvety material.

Photo of buck with velvet on antlers

Buck with velvet on growing antlers

By summer, the antlers harden and the protective velvet sheds.

In the fall, the antlers are firmly established and are used to fight and establish dominance leading up to and during breeding season.

By winter, the connection between the antler and the skull weakens. Some bucks will lose their antlers at this point, prior to spring.

3. Antlers have a purpose; scientists just aren't sure what it is.

Growing antlers every year uses a lot of energy, which means that a buck has to be healthy in order to do it. To use that much energy, there has to be a reason that antlers are so important.

Ideas of what antlers are used for is defense, dominance, signal of quality to females and as a weapon.

Antlers being used as a defense mechanism sounds right, but deer usually just run away from predators, and females don't have them, so it must not be needed as a defense. Antlers can be used to display dominance to other males, but body size and experience can also convey the same message.

It has definitely been proven that large antlers are a sign of health and quality to females, because a buck has to be healthy to have enough energy to grow antlers. Antler size and the ability to fight disease has also been found to be related, and it seems that females do prefer males with larger antlers.

Scientists have also found that antlers are definitely used as a weapon, for sparring/fighting with other males.

4. Antlers increase in size with age, to a point.

Antlers continue to increase in size as a buck grows, but the maximum is usually five-seven years. If a deer survives beyond that, it is most likely the antler size will begin to decrease.

5. Antler size can be an indication of habitat conditions.

Bucks need lots of energy and nutrients to grow antlers, including protein, calcium, phosphorous and micronutrients. If you look at a group of deer in a certain habitat, the size of their antlers relative to age can indicate how healthy the habitat and how many nutrients the deer are getting from that habitat.

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