The antlers of bucks are of great interest to hunters, yet few know very much about them.
Antlers of the whitetail, as in other members of the deer family, are grown and shed each year. In many cases, large antlers enhance a buck's social rank among other males in the neighborhood, but a strong body is usually more important for establishing dominance. Fighting is most common between deer with similar sized racks and is a means of these near equals to establish dominance in the hierarchy.
Bucks shed their antlers after the breeding season. How long a buck keeps his antlers may depend on his nutritional condition. Generally, the better he eats, the longer he retains his antlers. New antlers may begin to grow right after the old ones are cast off; indeed, it is not uncommon to find that budding new antlers have pushed off the old pair.
The antlers stem from pedicels on the skull. They grow rapidly, reaching full size in 12 to 16 weeks. During the growing period, they are composed of a lattice-work of connective tissue covered by velvet, a skin like covering that supplies blood to the antlers. One fully formed, the tissue under the velvet solidifies onto what we recognize as antlers and the velvet, no longer needed to supply nutrients to the growing tissue, is rubbed off. The buck rubs his antlers on bushes and small trees, gradually removing the velvet while polishing the tines.
The growth of antlers has fascinated and puzzled researchers for years. Why and how do they grow so fast? This has been of interest to people studying bone growth and particularly as it relates to the healing of fractures. What is the relationship between the fast growing antler tissue and other fast growing tissues, such as cancer cells? Why do some does develop antlers?
It is known that the size and shape of a buck's antlers, including the number of points, are determined by the quality and quantity of food, genetics, and hormonal regulation. There is some connection between a buck's age and the number of points on his antlers, but it is not a reliable method for determining age. For Example, in a healthy deer herd, 1 1/2 year old bucks may have antlers with as many as eight points. In a crowded condition, bucks from 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years or older may have only small spikes. In an extremely crowded situation, bucks may not have any visible antlers.
Non-typical or abnormally shaped antlers occur on some bucks. These distorted racks are attributed to several factors. Genetics is probably the most important; the genes which create unusual racks are passed along from one generation to the other. Castration or injury to the buck's reproductive system will also result in abnormal antler development. In addition, a deer injured on one side of its body may end up with a malformed antler on the opposite side.
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