Soon, all of our elk and deer will start to look like females! Only a close inspection from a super-powered camera or a peek out of the living room window will reveal whether an animal is male by the presence of pedicles, the base of growth for the antlers.
These will initially have the appearance of round wounds on the animal’s head and will heal before the antler growth process begins again. While some animals await antler buds, the horned wildlife can continue to hold their heads high on muscled necks because their head gear will not be detaching.
Although both antlers and horns consist of bone that grows from the skull, the structure of the horn has two layers. Covering the bony part of the horn is a keratin sheath. The sheath and bone stay in place and in some species continue to grow during the life of the animal. Females also have horns but of a smaller size. Local horned wildlife include bison, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats.
Members of the deer family such as elk, mule deer and moose grow antlers which are shed annually. A male-only club, bulls and bucks use antlers for protection from predators, to portray dominant status and to impress the ladies. As it turns out, their antlers impress everyone! But males pay a price for their proud displays. Bull elk have half the lifespan of female elk due to reduced overall health resulting from the demands of antler growth.
Age, genetics, nutrition and overall health influence the size of antlers. Size matters, but there are more important considerations for breeding. Broken or misshapen antlers can be a sign of genetic weakness, injury or serious illness. For these reasons, elk cows have more interest in antler symmetry over size. Antler ornaments like holiday decorations or hammocks? Only the elk know if such décor adds to a bull’s appeal!
The antler growth cycle beings in the spring, triggered by increasing daylight and subsequent testosterone production. As they grow, antlers are covered by velvet which brings blood vessels and nerves to the underlying bone.
After the antlers have reached their full size, the velvet begins to dry. This process is called hardening off. Once the velvet dies, the animal rubs his head against trees or other surfaces. The velvet will come off in strings during which time the bull is “in tatters.” The antlers are then fully grown and ready to be brandished for mating and territorial displays.
As the hours of daylight shorten, testosterone production lessens which causes the connection between the antler and the skull to weaken. The antlers eventually break away from the pedicle after the rut season concludes.
Antler castings have a role to play besides being fashioned into furniture or cut into dog chews. Dozens of species nibble on shed antlers to gain calcium and other nutrients. Deer will occasionally eat antlers to gain the minerals they lost during the growth of their own antlers.
Find a shed antler? Be sure to check the calendar before taking it home. In 2018, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission voted to protect winter habitat for wildlife by forbidding antler or horn collection found west of I-25 between Jan. 1 and April 30 each year.
When you see velvet antlers this spring, you can understand the toll it takes on bulls and bucks. Even though their antlers look soft and touchable, keep in mind that hard bone is just under the surface, a fact which elk will be happy to show you if you get too close!