Kip’s Korner, Antler Basics

One of the most captivating traits of white-tailed deer is their antlers.  Antlers have fascinated man since the dawn of time and continue to do so today.  From cave drawings to modern hunting magazines, we have spent countless hours drawing, photographing, hunting for, and dreaming about antlers.  This article covers some of the basics of antlers and explains the factors affecting their growth.

Antlers are the fastest growing true bone in nature.  They start growing in spring and continue through late summer.  While growing, antlers are soft, warm (because of the blood supply) and covered with velvet.  They harden in late summer/early fall and bucks shed their velvet in response to increasing testosterone levels.  Bucks then cast their antlers in late winter/early spring in response to decreasing testosterone levels.  Antlers are often incorrectly referred to as “horns” but they are distinctly different.  Antlers grow from the tip and are shed annually while horns grow from the base and grow for the life of the animal.

The three factors influencing antler growth are animal age, nutrition and genetics.  These factors are not uniform throughout the whitetails range but proper deer and habitat management can compensate for some regional shortcomings.  For example, the average buck harvested in New Hampshire is heavier and has larger antlers than the average buck harvested in Pennsylvania – even though PA has much better soils and more productive habitat.  The reason is the average buck in NH comes from a deer herd with good age structure (the average NH buck is 1-2 years older than the average PA buck) and from a deer herd in balance with its habitat (so the NH buck is less likely to be nutritionally limited).

Florida is not known for producing large-bodied or large-antlered deer.  Bergman’s Rule (animals get smaller as you get closer to the equator) and sandy soils produce deer that average lower body weights and lower scoring antlers than many regions of the country.  However, public land in central Florida that I formerly managed has produced deer that weighed nearly 200 pounds (live weight) with antler spreads exceeding 20 inches.  These bucks were allowed to mature in balanced deer herds in properly managed habitats supplemented with high quality food plots.  A high percentage of deer killed in higher quality habitats in northern environments never reach the above mentioned weight or antler parameter because they are harvested at early ages and are nutritionally limited.

Genetic improvements are extremely difficult, if not impossible, in wild populations and are often overrated in antler conversations.  Selecting specific antler traits is possible through controlled breeding in penned situations because the parents can be chosen.  However, it’s not that simple in the wild as twin fawns may have different fathers.  This fact is well known in bear management but is relatively new to the deer literature.  Recent studies also suggest that even in populations with good age structure, young bucks may breed 25-30% of the does (fortunately, mature bucks are breeding 70-75% of the does).  These facts demonstrate the complexities involved with attempting genetic improvement in wild populations and show why culling young bucks is ill advised, especially in overpopulated herds.  As managers, we do best by balancing deer herds with their habitats, improving buck age structures, and putting the most mature bucks in the population as possible.  Then we can relax and let Mother Nature take care of the rest.

Kip’s Korner is written by Kip Adams, a Certified Wildlife Biologist and Northern Director of Education and Outreach for the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA).  The QDMA is an international nonprofit wildlife conservation organization dedicated to ethical hunting, sound deer management and preservation of the deer-hunting heritage.  The QDMA can be reached at 1-800-209-DEER or  Kip is an ongoing contributor to Stick’em Archery.

Originally posted 2010-08-09 17:12:17. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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