Antlers 101: The Deer Family’s Temporary Crowns
Antlers have fascinated humans throughout time. We’ve crafted them into tools, ground them up for medicine, and displayed them as totems since we lived in caves.
We still use antlers in myriad ways, from knife handles and dog-chew toys to impressive chandeliers and displays from memorable hunts. The very process of antler formation embodies their spellbinding nature. Antlers are one of the fastest growing animal tissues known to science, sometimes growing over an inch daily.
Only members of the Cervidae (deer) family carry antlers. This group includes all deer, elk, moose and caribou worldwide. Only the males of those species carry antlers, with the exception of female caribou, which typically grow much smaller antlers than the males do.
The Lifecycle of Antlers
Antlers begin growing in late winter to early spring, and then keep growing four to six months. While growing, antlers are soft and covered with a fuzzy skin called “velvet,” which protects the developing bone and supplies its necessary blood.
As the growth phase ends, antlers harden into solid bone. With the antlers fully formed and solid, the blood supply slows and the velvet dries. Animals help shed the velvet by raking and rubbing their antlers on brush and trees. This late-summer process coincides with shorter days as autumn approaches.
Throughout fall, males use their antlers to establish a hierarchy among other males by rubbing saplings and trees, and sparring and fighting for breeding rights. Recent research at Mississippi State University also shows that estrous does choose to breed with larger-antlered bucks whenever possible. As the breeding season ends and winter sets in, the males’ testosterone levels drop. That causes the bond between the antler and skull to weaken and the antlers to fall off. Once an antler sheds, the annual cycle starts over.
Antler vs. Horns
Antlers and horns are not the same. As we’ve discussed, antlers grow and fall off annually. Horns, however, grow throughout an animal’s life and, with one exception, are not cast. Only the pronghorn, or American antelope, casts the outer sheath of its horns each year, but retain the inner core. Horned animals belong to the bovine family, which includes bison and pronghorns, as well as wild and domestic sheep, goats and cattle.
Points and Scoring
The racks on antlered animals can differ strikingly. A white-tailed buck, for instance, carries antlers that are much thinner and branched than those of moose. Likewise, the names and measuring methods for each species’ antlers can differ as much as their appearance. North America’s deer and elk are commonly described by the number of points on their rack.
A point by most definitions is an antler tine measuring at least 1 inch. A deer with nine total points is called a 9-pointer in Eastern states. In Western states, the same 9-pointer, which might have five points on one side and four on the other, would be called a 4-by-5. The terminology difference is determined by region, not species, with no firm border where one term replaces the other. The change, however, occurs somewhere on the Great Plains.
The Cervidae family’s largest member, the moose, has a unique yet simple form of classification. People usually reference the span between a moose’s antlers at their widest point, which makes the moose’s antler terminology easy to understand. In contrast, caribou antler descriptions are complex. A mature male caribou’s rack is often broad, with several long points flattening into palms and more points. The number of points, the width between its main beams, and several other factors help hunters field judge, compare and discuss caribou rack.
No matter the species, each can be scored using specific measurements. Scorers measure several specific aspects of each animal’s rack, including its width, tine lengths, and antler circumferences at specified locations. Scorers take and record these measurements based on the species and the measuring system.
Several scoring systems are used worldwide. The European system used by the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation scores various aspects of horns and antlers, as well as the weights of the racks and skulls. North America and South America recognize the Safari Club International’s system, but measurements specified by the Boone and Crockett Club and Pope and Young Club render scores most commonly used in Canada and the United States. Those organizations maintain record books covering many game species, with minimum score requirements dictating which individual animals qualify for listing.
No matter their score, antlers always inspire mystery and intrigue. As with snowflakes and fingerprints, no two are identical, and each has its own story that varies by the places the animal traveled and the battles it waged. Maybe that’s why antlers fascinate us as much today as long ago.