Nothing distinguishes a North American deer more than its antlers. Most members of the Cervidae mammal family possess them, including adult male moose, elk, caribou, mule deer, and white-tailed deer. The majority of female caribou also have antlers.
A deer's antlers are classified as organs and are used primarily for defensive measures and to fight for mating rights. The size of a rack indicates the health of the male possessing it because antlers take such ample physical resources to grow and carry. Therefore, the healthiest males produce the largest antlers. Their size and overall appearance help individuate the most viable and strongest bucks, which are most likely to successfully mate and pass along their genes to future generations.
Antlers have other purposes as well. They not only help establish dominance for food resources. They also help protect against predators and help deer create wallows that help cool the animals down in hot weather. Some deer use them to knock fruits from trees.
Antlers appear on male deer when the animal reaches puberty at about one year old. They comprise one of the fastest types of tissue organ growth known in any mammal. Unlike rigid cattle horns from the bovine family, antlers feel soft and spongy when they are young. While horns are comprised of keratin, antlers are calcified bones.
As mid-summer nears, antlers tend to reach their peak growth, and its cartilage begins to calcify. When deer testosterone levels grow high toward the end of summer, the blood vessels around the base of the antlers shut down and the antlers harden, transforming them into bone. After this point in time, the deer is no longer able to feel where its antlers are on its head.
What is the purpose of Deer Velvet?
Once each year, a furry outside layer of skin appears and covers the antlers. This layer of skin is known as velvet, named for its soft, velvety appearance. Deer in this stage of antler development are said to be in velvet, and in some states, concessions are made for hunters during this stage of antler development.
This special tissue layer provides the necessary nutrition to promote antler growth, which typically begins in spring shortly after the deer cast off their antlers. This leaves a bloody spot that slowly scabs over.
A thin skin covering develops over the tissue covering the antler base. This is known as the pedicle. A small discolored spot begins to develop at the center of the pedicle which triggers a chemical reaction that starts the development of new antlers.
At this stage, the blood flow grows heavier to the pedicle and the thin skin begins to protrude upward through a number of shallow arteries. Minerals cause the antlers to grow in magnitude as nutrients are disbursed on various protein bases that are established by streams of blood. This growth continues for approximately five months, usually ending around August.
Small fibers can be observed on antlers during the growing process, but one the antlers mature, they are much more visible. The fibers serve as sensory receptacles for the deer. Any time they brush across a surface or touch anything, the buck can sense it, helping the animal avoid damage to the antlers. It also enables the buck or female caribou to memorize where its headgear sits once it no longer has velvet on it.
Crucial to their survival, it is necessary for deer to regrow their antlers quickly. They can grow as fast as an entire inch per day. It takes around four months for antlers to fully develop.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the velvet dries up just before the breeding season and the deer rub it off on surrounding vegetation.