HORNY DEER
Michael Ellis

The deer are getting horny this time of year or I should say “antlery”. Because deer don’t have horns they have antlers. There’s a big difference. Horns are permanent and both males and females have them╔ many of our domestic animals like goats, sheep and cattle have horns. Antlers on the other hand are borne only by the males, they are deciduous– they grow and fall off every year. Antlers are made of bone whereas horns are made from keratin, the same material that your fingernails are made of.

Many of our North American hoofed mammals have antlers– moose, elk, caribou, and of course the local black-tailed mule deer. Antlers are amazing, they begin growing in early spring. A soft moss-like skin called velvet nourishes the growing bone– it provides the necessary nutrients and oxygen. By mid-summer the antlers are fully developed and the velvet is useless; the deer rub it off on small branches. You can often find these rubbing trees along streambeds; look for loose strips of bark and even bloody velvet on young willow trees.

Antlers are what biologists call secondary sexual characteristics. They have no function in the day-to-day survival of the animals. They certainly don’t help the deer find food and shelter. But they do send a very clear message- “not only am I a healthy vigorous buck capable of supporting myself but I have secured enough extra nutrients to grow an especially large set of antlers. I am one tough dude!” This message isn’t directed at female deer like one might suspect but to other bucks. In order to mate successfully a male deer must dominate other male deer. Usually all that’s necessary for dominance is a raised head, erect hairs, and a rut-snort or two but occasionally battles do happen. But these clashes rarely result in injury.

Right now the dominant bucks are in a rut now herding several females and waiting for them to come into heat. After mating, the males split. By January the bucks have shed their antlers and the cycle begins anew.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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December 1, 2010