How Big Was That Deer?

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

according to day length. Characteristics of antler make it an ideal model for biomedical research on tissue growth, such as skin and bone regeneration and bone growth and mineralization.

Different people have their own criteria about what defines a "trophy" set of antlers, but antlers with heavy and wide main beams with numerous long points generally cause the greatest stir among deer enthusiasts.

What does it take for a deer to grow a large set of antlers? Biologists generally recognize three factors as most important to antler growth: age, genetics and nutrition. Antlers get progressively larger as a buck grows older. That's the age factor.

During their first fall, bucks only have small "buttons" or "nubbins" that appear as bumps on the forehead just above and in front of the ears. During their second fall, bucks grow their first set of antlers. These may range in size from short, single spikes to multiple pointed but small "basket racks." Antler size generally peaks at 6 to 7 years of age. After that, antlers may regress somewhat, maintaining main beam thickness but losing inches in point length.

The role of genetics in antler growth may best be portrayed with an example. If you raised 100 newly weaned bucks in a pen and fed them the same diet, after a period of years each buck would have a unique set of antlers. Each set would vary in size and shape. Most of the uniqueness would result from differences in genetic makeup. Although genetics plays a significant role in antler development and size, most Missouri deer that reach at least 4 years of age will develop a respectable set of antlers.Finally, antler growth requires substantial inputs of protein and minerals. Studies of antler development in penned deer have found that protein and energy are probably most important in a deer's diet. Although minerals such as calcium and phosphorous are important components of antlers, whitetails have adaptations that ensure adequate minerals for antler growth. For example, deer store minerals in their skeletons throughout the year. During antler growth, they mobilize these minerals and redirect them to the growing antlers.

Deer also are able to change absorption rates of minerals during digestion. When using large amounts of minerals for antler growth, deer are able to siphon more minerals from the plants they eat.

Under normal conditions in good habitat, deer are able to grow to their potential without food supplementation. A 1.5-year

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