2018-11-03 / Outdoors

Wolf Tracks

Outdoor Columnist
Dave Wolf

Why are we so fascinated by antlers?

A few years ago, Pa. Game Commission biologist Jeannine Fleegle wrote an interesting column that traced our fascination with antlers back to at least 200 AD. She observed that antler tissue is the fastest-growing tissue known to man, with the capacity to grow an inch or more per day.

Fleegle also observed that, like snowflakes, every set of antlers (even on the same buck) is different.

I have been bitten by the bug. I have a den full of buck antlers. People are amused when I sit and stare at them or rub my hands and fingers over every inch of an antler, wondering how a certain imperfection occurred.

I prefer what is known as a “non-typical” rack over a perfect one. I particularly enjoy taking photographs of bucks with deformed racks.

Numerous antler features, such as shape and tine length, are unquestionably coded in genes. However, most deformed antlers are the result of physiological problems brought on by injury, parasites, disease, or malnutrition.


This buck appeared to be a trophy animal – until he turned his head. His non-typical rack was not the result of poor nutrition, since only one antler was affected. Out fascination with antlers dates back many centuries. Dave Wolf photo This buck appeared to be a trophy animal – until he turned his head. His non-typical rack was not the result of poor nutrition, since only one antler was affected. Out fascination with antlers dates back many centuries. Dave Wolf photo Genetic deformities typically occur on both antlers. Lack of brow tines among mature bucks, for example, appears to be genetically controlled. Paired palmate antlers also seem to be hereditary, but sometimes are the result of physiological problems or even an antler injury.

Before a deer or elk can grow antlers, it must grow antler pedicles. The size and health of the pedicle (a star-shaped boney substance that serves as a base for an antler) influences the size and shape of the antler. If the pedicles are damaged, abnormal antlers often result. If a pedicle is split, a third antler may form.

This often happens at an early age, or right after the animal has shed its antlers in the spring. If a buck or bull has a damaged pedicle, the animal will likely have nontypical antlers every year.

Injuries to the body can profoundly affect antler size and shape. Damage to one side of a buck’s body can cause antler deformity on the opposite side. This is from the animal putting more energy into healing the injury rather than toward antler growth.

When a velvet antler is fractured, yet its blood supply is not severed, the broken antler may fuse and continue to grow. Cracked antlers generally heal with a bulge at the fracture site.

Antlers in the velvet stage are susceptible to becoming damaged or deformed. The velvet protects blood vessels and the soft material developing underneath that eventually becomes the hardened antler. However, if the velvet gets severely damaged, the bull or buck will likely display nontypical antler growth that season, but the antlers will grow normally the following year if the velvet is unharmed.

Genetics also play a role. Hormone levels can also affect antler growth. Bucks or bulls with low testosterone levels often will not shed their velvet at all. Instead, they will have a large mass of velvet near the pedicle. Animals with this condition often grow points and spikes in all directions, and are sometimes referred to as “sticker” bucks or bulls.

If you see a buck or bull with a deformed antler, try to pay attention to the reasons. You may never find an answer, but it is certainly worth investigating.

(Dave Wolf can be reached by email at wolfang418@msn.com.)

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