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How Big Was That Deer?

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

Humans have recorded their hunting stories for thousands of years, as evidenced by the drawings of deer on cave walls. In a sense, those murals were the world's first outdoor magazines, and judging by the drawings, those ancient hunters valued deer with big antlers.

Look at today's hunting magazines, and you see things haven't changed much. People - hunters and non-hunters alike - are still fascinated by impressive, trophy-class racks.

According to surveys conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation, the white-tailed deer is our most popular wild animal among hunters and wildlife watchers. Missouri deer hunters spend many days in the woods in hopes of just seeing the so-called "buck of a lifetime." Actually taking such a buck is a great achievement for any hunter fortunate enough to get the chance.

Of course, deer hunting is more than just a search for a deer with big antlers. It includes camaraderie, woodsmanship and a close connection with nature, as well as the chance to procure a large amount of fine-tasting venison.

Hunting is also a cultural tradition. Even now, it remains a rite of passage for thousands of Missouri youths, both male and female. The hunt has been coded into our genetics since our arrival on Earth.

Although you can't eat antlers, they still fascinate hunters. A set of antlers large enough to display seems to acknowledge and honor the majesty of white-tailed deer.

Antlers are not the same as horns, even though some people casually use the two words interchangeably. Horns are a product of the skin that grow continuously and are not shed and regrown each year. Antlers, on the other hand, are bony outgrowths of the skull that are lost and regrown annually. Antler growth occurs at the tip of the antler rather than at the base, as with horn growth. White-tailed deer have antlers, and cattle have horns.

The antler has unusual biological characteristics, too. Antler is unique because it is the only completely regenerating appendage found in mammals. It consists of bone that is laid down during the spring and summer by an outer coating of skin called velvet. Covered by a dense mat of fine hair, the velvet is laced with blood vessels that supply it with nourishment to grow. The velvet dries up and is shed in late summer or early fall to expose a hardened bony antler. Hormone levels direct growth, hardening and shedding of antlers. These hormone levels vary 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 old buck in northern Missouri will weigh as much as 50 pounds more than a similar-aged buck in the lower Ozarks and will grow larger antlers. Biologists suspect that abundant food and fertile, mineral-rich soils in northern Missouri may explain the size difference. Supplementing natural deer diets in parts of southern Missouri might affect growth more than in northern Missouri, where deer generally have ready access to high-quality food.

The differences between southern and northern Missouri deer are further illustrated by a look at the county distribution of bucks entered into the Show Me Big Bucks Club records. The Show Me Big Bucks Club was formed in 1968 by a group of Missouri deer hunters and employees of the Conservation Department to recognize and maintain permanent records of outstanding deer taken in Missouri. They also wanted to develop an appreciation of Missouri deer hunting and promote sportsmanship. More information on the Show Me Big Bucks Club can be found at <www.missourishowmebigbucksclub.org>.

To compare record-book buck production in different parts of the state, we tallied the number of deer from each county that were in the Show Me Big Bucks Club record book, which meant they had a minimum "typical" score of 150 (until recently the northern Missouri minimum) or "non-typical" score of 170 (see sidebar). To identify areas producing the largest bucks, we used the minimum criteria for entry into the Boone and Crockett all-time records (a minimum "typical" score of 170 and "non-typical" score of 195).

Some counties are larger than others or may produce more bucks overall. We factored in the size of county and proportion of the total bucks taken that qualified for the record books in developing maps that show how counties compare in potential for producing deer that qualify for either the Show Me Big Bucks Club or the Boone and Crockett Club.

The results show that northern Missouri produces more record-book deer than the southern part of the state. Although fertile soils and access to high quality foods, including agricultural crops, likely played a significant role in these differences, other factors also may have been important. Notice that counties in the St. Louis and Kansas City regions occur prominently on this list. Probably the biggest factor making these areas so productive is the lack of hunting pressure. Hunting access is becoming more and more limited in these areas, so bucks living there have the potential to live longer and grow larger antlers. This may also be a factor in some of the more remote, rural counties that receive less hunting pressure.

Although northern Missouri produces larger deer in general, southern Missouri hunters should think twice about pulling up stakes and heading north to hunt. There are excellent deer hunting opportunities in southern Missouri, and in recent years some of the largest deer taken have come from the south.

Big antlers are always a welcome bonus for any hunter, but quality hunting can be found throughout Missouri.

Measuring Antlers

The Boone and Crockett scoring system was developed in 1950 to provide a consistent way to compare quality of mammals, as measured by size and symmetry, mostly of antlers and horns.

For white-tailed deer, various characteristics of antlers are measured to determine a score. Measurements include maximum inside spread of the main beams, their length, length of each point (must be at least 1 inch long and longer than wide) and circumference between points. A score is derived by adding the values for all of these.

Many sets of antlers have abnormal points (different from the usual shape or location) that are also measured. Antlers are classified as typical or nontypical depending on how the abnormal points are recorded. Abnormal points are subtracted for a deer being scored as a typical and added if being scored as a nontypical. The decision on whether a rack is scored as a nontypical or typical depends on the owner but generally will depend on how the rack scores relative to minimum scores to make the record book. Because abnormal points are added to nontypical scores the minimum qualifying score is higher for nontypicals.

To make the all time Boone and Crockett record book, a buck must score 170 typical points or 195 nontypical points. For the Show Me Big Bucks Club, the antlers must score 140 typical or 155 nontypical points.

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