Abnormal Antlers

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The animals that we most like to hunt belong to the deer family (Cervidae), which includes deer, moose and elk. One distinguishing feature of the family is the deciduous headgear on the males – they have antlers that are shed in the winter and re-grown each summer.

Antlers are amazing structures, one of the fastest growing tissues in nature. They are not permanently attached to the skull, but grow from specialized cells on the antler attachment site, the pedicle. Varying hormone levels, controlled by the animal’s pituitary gland, is what causes antler growth and shedding.

Each male animal has a right and left antler, which normally look similar but are seldom identical. The differences may not be dramatic, often a small point or two on one side, but occasionally there are some really bizarre antler configurations.

Factors that might affect antler growth and shape include age, genetics, nutrition, disease and injury. A young male cervid starts with simple antlers that get increasingly larger and heavier each year, but once past his prime age his antlers begin to regress, each year getting shorter, thicker and more malformed. A buck or bull’s genetic background can affect the overall size of antlers and thus the trophy value, but inherited antler abnormalities are rare. Antler growth demands a lot of energy and nutrients, so forage quality during the antler growth period is important. However, the most common cause of abnormal antlers is injury and the more serious the injury and the earlier in the growth period, the more dramatic the effect on that antler.

During the growing period, antlers are covered with a specialized skin called velvet, which supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone. Most of the growth is at the tips. So any damage to a growing tip, especially early in the antler growth period, will affect the shape of that antler. Injury to the pedicle can cause a small or malformed third antler to grow elsewhere on the skull. In fact, scientists have grafted pedicle cells to other areas of a deer’s body and had rudimentary antlers grow at the graft site. One interesting potential cause of an abnormal antler is injury to a back leg. For reasons not understood, an injury to a leg can seriously affect the growth of the antler on the opposite side of the animal (that is, the injury to left leg affects the right antler). Antler abnormalities caused by injury are usually for that season only, seldom carried over to the next set of antlers.

So, considering the number of factors that can affect antler growth, it is not a wonder that there occasionally are mismatched and abnormal antlers.

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