The animal kingdom is brutal. To survive, many animals have evolved with built-in weapons, including horns, quills, shells, claws, and tusks, to name a few. Members of the Cervidae family — including the white-tail deer, mule deer, elk, moose, and reindeer/caribou — have developed antlers to serve as a defense system. But they also have other purposes. Here, we answer all your antler questions. Read on to find out more.
(Credit: Rick Fansler/Shutterstock)
Antlers are bony structures that extend out of permanent growths on a Cervidae’s head — usually only the male — called pedicles. Male deer and other Cervidae shed their antlers annually, usually in the winter, and grow new ones in the spring.
The antlers consist of an interior core made of bone and an outer covering called “velvet.” The velvet layer comprises skin, blood vessels, and short hair and nourishes the growing bone during the spring. Cervidae usually shed the velvet in the summer.
Antlers serve several purposes. While deer and other Cervidae primarily use their antlers to attract mates in the fall, they are also weapons against predators or rival males. The bigger the antlers, typically, the more popular they are with the ladies.
The three main determinants of antlers’ size are genetics, nutrition, and age. A common misconception is that age is indicated by antler size, which is inaccurate. On the other hand, antlers are a good indicator of an animal’s health.
Antlers reach their largest size at different ages, depending on the animal. The smallest antlers belong to the southern pudu deer, only reaching about three inches in length. The moose is the largest, growing up to five feet wide and weighing up to 50 pounds.
Other animals consume antlers to obtain the nutrients they contain. Once the animals shed their antlers — squirrels, mice, chipmunks, foxes, opossums, and even bears will chew on antlers they find on the ground. They are a vitamin-rich nutrient source, including calcium, which is 20 percent of antlers’ composition.
Yes, deer and other Cervidae shed their antlers, and this process is an annual cycle. The timing of antler shedding varies among species and factors such as age, nutrition, and location can influence it.
During late summer, blood flow to the antlers decreases, drying up the velvet. Once this starts, the velvet gets itchy, and the animals begin rubbing their antlers against trees. During the “rut,” or mating season, the antlers become hard to fight off rival males.
As the rut ends, a buck’s or bull’s testosterone drops, and so do their antlers. They spend the rest of winter without antlers and grow new ones in the spring.
Although the antlers fall off yearly, the pedicles remain — and continue to serve as the base for new antlers to grow. White-tail deer antlers grow about a quarter of an inch each day, while elk and caribou regrow their antlers at almost an inch daily.
Frequently used interchangeably, antlers and horns are quite different. The main difference is that antlers are shed each year, while horns continue growing throughout an animal’s lifetime.
Both antlers and horns have a covering — while antlers are coated in velvet, horns are coated by keratin.
Antlers are found on males (except for female reindeer/caribou), while both males and females have horns. There are also visual differences — antlers are branched, while horns are not.
Animals with horns typically include sheep, goats, antelope, and cattle, to name a few.
In a controversial practice, deer velvet is harvested by cutting antlers off at their base and then removing the velvet. This surgical procedure is done under local anesthesia, but it can cause distress and pain for the animal. The velvet is then ground into powder and made into nutritional capsules and extracts.
Some people tout antlers’ health benefits, such as increased energy, improved immune function, and antiviral/ antioxidant properties. Thus far, there is not sufficient scientific evidence to support that velvet contains health benefits for humans.
People who search for dropped or shed antlers are called “shed hunters.” Collectors have paid more than a thousand dollars for a set of antlers — and much more for a “deadhead,” which is a skull with the antlers still attached.
There are even specialized hunting challenges, specifically to compete in finding “sheds.”
Collectors use antlers in a variety of decorative ways. These include a mounted display, chandeliers, lamps, knife handles, and more. Some people even use them in jewelry and keychains. Other shed hunters may use them as tools to train dogs how to find shed antlers or simply look back fondly on them as part of a collection.
One thing to note is that shed hunting is not legal everywhere in the U.S. Shed antlers cannot be taken out of wildlife refuges and many state or national parks. Shed antlers benefit other animals in the ecosystem, so it’s usually best that they stay where they are.
Yes, deer lose their antlers every year. This is a natural part of their life cycle, with new antlers regrowing each spring after the old ones have been shed.
Since male deer grow new antlers annually, this cycle involves shedding old antlers in late winter or early spring, followed by a period of rapid growth of new antlers through spring and summer, culminating in fully developed antlers by fall.
Whitetail deer generally shed their antlers between January and March. Factors such as location, age, and health can influence the exact timing.
Unlike most deer species, female reindeer also grow antlers. This adaptation is related to their harsh Arctic habitat and plays a role in foraging and social behavior.
Yes, like other members of the deer family, moose shed their antlers annually. The shedding typically occurs in winter, after the breeding season.
Moose shed their antlers to conserve energy for the winter months. The process is triggered by hormonal changes and shorter daylight hours, helping the moose to survive harsh conditions with lessened nutritional needs.
Elk typically shed their antlers from late winter to early spring, usually between February and April. This process varies depending on the elk’s age and physical condition.
Antlers can be a controversial choice for dog chews. While they are natural and long-lasting, they can be hard on a dog’s teeth and pose a choking hazard. It’s important to supervise your dog and choose the right size.