Why Do Deer Shed Their Antlers?

What Are Antlers?

Antlers begin as vascular tissue, one of the fastest growing tissues in the animal kingdom. They’re made up of a network of vessels that carry blood and nutrients to the rapidly growing matrix, which is covered by a thin layer of skin and hair we refer to as velvet. As they reach maturity, antlers go through a process of mineralization. Blood flow is cut off and they become hard, dead bone.

Why Antlers?

Antlers serve several purposes. Bucks use them to spar with other males as they build neck and shoulder strength and sort out dominance. Later, they may be used as weapons when fighting a rival for the opportunity to breed. They also act as signals to a potential mate, larger antlers demonstrating a healthy individual.

Why Are Antlers Shed?

Once the breeding season is over, they become more of a liability than an asset. They’re no longer needed to fight a rival or attract a mate. They could tangle in limbs, vegetation or some structure, and impact with a solid object could result in skull fractures or abscesses. So, they’re cast off. 

How Do Antlers Shed?

Photoperiodism (changes in the amount of daylight) triggers seasonal changes in deer physiology. As the days grow longer in the spring, the production of certain hormones like testosterone increases, promoting antler growth. As they grow shorter in winter, testosterone levels decline. The connection between skull and antler begins to degrade. An abscission line forms and eventually the connection becomes weak enough that the antlers fall, or get knocked off.behavior are caused largely by. Waning day length prompts a reduction in. That, in turn, causes an abscission line to form at the pedicel base as connective tissue dies. Then the antlers fall off. However, it is not a precise mechanism and there are other influencing factors, some of which are inter-related.

When Are Antlers Shed? 

When exactly deer shed their antlers can depend on several things including age, health and genetics. Older bucks tend to shed earlier, perhaps because the mechanisms that cause antlers to shed have been fine-tuned over time. All those mechanisms require sufficient resources to function properly. If a deer is in poor health due to disease, malnutrition (including mineral deficiency) or injury, they may be stressed, causing antlers to be cast off sooner. 

What Else?

Nature is continually fine-tuning its systems for maximum efficiency and survival, but there are always exceptions and aberrations. Occasionally, as a result of injury, malady or mutation, males may not display typical secondary sex characteristics. For example, cryptorchidism is a condition where one or both testicles may not descend during early development, and remain within the body cavity. The buck looks like a doe but is a male deer. Conversely, a freemartin is genetically a female but has some male characteristics, like antlers. In either case, antler shedding can vary well outside the norm. Antlers on a true female may never be shed, and may remain in velvet indefinitely.

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