We are into May and another spring is well under way. One of the amazing things that occur this time of year is antler growth in our whitetail population. Many deer hunters are fascinated by this age old process; as it represents deployment of one of the fastest growing animal tissue sources in nature and, like a snowflake, no two sets of antlers are exactly the same.
I’ve got to believe that millions of years ago early hunters sat around the fire ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the wide variation of antler growth patterns; as they showed off their trophy bone collected via hunting or found as sheds.
Today we understand much of the process that takes place, but it is no less fascinating. Antlers are different from true horns in that they grow, are shed and re-grown annually in a cycle which is one of the most commonly observable traits in the Cervidae family which includes many species of deer, elk, moose, caribou, etc. Some female cervids even grow antlers in addition to the males.
Antler growth is brought on by the change in photoperiod (amounts of light and dark during a day) following winter. To reach maximum potential there are many things which enter the antler growth equation:
- The animal must have excellent genetics to even be able to reach the amounts of bone growth we are able to routinely produce in our modern breeding programs. Selective breeding of the highest order is a highly technical and costly process which has been refined over the last 20 years.
- The animal must be healthy. A buck at the peak of his health and not under stress will produce more bone secretion than a less healthy buck or stressed buck.
- The animal must be eating a highly nutritious food source. In breeding programs this includes expensive protein diets that are supplemented with other vital nutrients including specific amino acids, minerals, vitamins, and other key ingredients.
- The animal must be mature and in the right age class to reach maximum antler growth potential.
The process starts in March or April. As the antlers grow, they are covered in a soft fuzzy tissue; similar to velvet material. This velvet is highly vascular and can carry the blood flow necessary to grow these amazing racks. By mid-summer, antlers are growing at their fastest rates. During August, blood flow slows in the velvet and the antler starts to harden. As this tissue literally dies off, it itches and the animal looks to rub against the branches or even trunks of trees and bushes.
Between the itching velvet and the nuisance caused to the animal by insects attracted to the bloody velvet hanging from the antler mass; the buck is very diligent in trying to rid itself of all the velvet on its rack. Dirt, tree sap, and chemicals in the specific trees and bushes all act to give the antler its final hardened color and appearance. Hardened antlers can vary from light colored to dark chocolate hues.
Each buck produces a set of antlers that is truly unique in nature. Color, size, shape, additions such as drops, kickers, and stickers all add to the variety that makes a particular rack appealing to an individual. Each buck is truly a trophy and Large or small; each rack has its own beauty which is defined in the eye of the beholder!