While up North recently, I came across some caribou with large antlers. I was told they were female, which surprised me as I thought only male deer grew antlers.
Male and female caribou (reindeer) can grow antlers. In other species of deer, antlers usually are only found on male deer. However, females can grow antlers if they have higher-than-normal testosterone levels.
In this article, I look at why males have antlers and determine why female caribou are the only species to grow antlers regularly.
Why Do Deer Grow Antlers?
To Attract A Mate
Male deer grow antlers to attract female deer for mating. When the antlers grow during mating season, females will be shown a display, with each male trying to become the most dominant.
Males use their antlers for sparring with each other. They will also use their antlers as weapons to establish their dominance and compete for a female mate.
They also use antlers to rub against trees to show off their dominance. Males with giant antlers are more likely to achieve the highest fertilization success and will obtain mates due to their competitiveness.
It is unknown whether this is due to the result of the display, male-to-male fighting, or the antler’s size and shape, as this changes with some species.
Mountain lions are masters of their environment. Please find out more about them here.
The antlers help protect deer against predators and other deer.
Sometimes when fighting other deer, the antlers can lock themselves together, causing them to starve.
Deer do not eat meat; herbivores eat fruits, nuts, and acorns.
The antlers can be used to knock down fruit from trees. They also use their antlers to knock down acorns and nuts in season.
Deer become hot in the summer, so they use their antlers in various ways to help them cool down and relax.
Deer use their antlers to create depressions in the mud or dirt, allowing them to lie down, relax, and keep insects off.
How does A Deer Grow Antlers?
The antlers grow from two base points on the deer’s head. These two points are called pedicles, and the antlers are bone tissue structures.
The velvet, a soft tissue, covers the antlers and feeds nutrients to the growing structure. The velvet contains arteries and veins, which provide nutrients.
Testosterone is needed to grow antlers, so the male deer with more testosterone is generally the one that produces them.
Testosterone in male humans plays a massive role in developing reproductive tissues and promotes bone and muscle mass characteristics.
The testosterone in the male deer is very similar and plays a vital role in finding a mate.
Why do Some Female Deer Grow Antlers?
Although the male buck produces testosterone, essential for antler growth, some female deers have this.
An antlered doe rarely occurs because of an imbalance in the hormones that cause higher testosterone levels.
Some antlered does turn out to be hermaphrodites having both male and female sex organs, although these are rare, with estimates between 1 in every 5,000 antlered does.
There are also deer, which have rare genetic defects that cause a set of antlers to grow. These antlers do not grow from pedicels but from the skull plate inside.
These defects are permanent antlers and do not shed like other deers. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources estimates that one female in every 20,000 does have small antlers.
Which Species of Deer Grow Antlers?
Deer native to North America all have antlers. There are two species of deer native to North America. These are the whitetail deer and mule deer. There is also a subspecies of the mule deer, the Pacific coastal blacktail, which also grows antlers.
The elk, caribou, and moose have antlers, with the moose having giant antlers. Antlers are grown from the age of one year old.
Are Antlers the same as Horns?
Whereas other North American mammals such as bison, antelopes, goat, sheep, and cattle have horns, these are not the same as the antlers that deers grow.
Horns are composed of the same material as fingernails and hair. They are made of keratin on the outside, while inside, they are bone. Whereas horns grow from the base upwards, antlers grow from the tip.
Another difference between horns and antlers is that antlers are shed annually, whereas horns are not. Antlers are deciduous, growing each year.
The hairy-covered small bumps on a baby fawn’s head are pedicels, not antlers.
Do Deer Shed Their Antlers Annually?
High levels of testosterone during the summer slow the growth of the antler. The velvet is constricted by the veins and arteries and cuts off the blood supply to the antlers.
In early September, the velvet dries up almost entirely and sheds, leaving the bony structure for the upcoming mating season in Autumn.
Once the mating season has finished, the deer shed their antlers between December and March.
The process does not hurt the animal and can take 2 to 3 weeks. The tissue slowly disintegrates between the pedicles and the antler, causing them to come away gradually and eventually fall off.
The deer will not have to wait long as new antlers will grow in the spring to prepare for the next mating season.
The length of time a deer keeps his antlers before they shed depends on his general nutrition and genetics.
Do Antlers Indicate Health Concerns?
The number of points on a deer’s antler is called the time, and the amount can depend upon his health, genetics, how well he has fed during the winter, and age.
Antlers do not always grow the same each year with different sizes cause of the deer’s health and food supply.
Because of damage from general wear and fighting over time, it is common to see deer with antler points that have been blunted or broken off entirely.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.