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(For the week of November 15, 2010)
Antlers, Not Horns
by James L. Cummins

In many deer camps throughout Mississippi, it is not uncommon to hear someone refer to a white-tail buck’s headgear as “horns.” In reality, those “horns” are actually antlers.

Horns are made of a bony core covered by layers of keratin. They are slow growing and permanent and are usually grown by both sexes. Horns grow in yearly rings which may be an age indicator.

Antlers, on the other hand, are made of fast growing bone and are shed every year (except in rare cases). Antlers are usually grown by males and are branched instead of singular like a cow horn.

White-tailed bucks in Mississippi grow their first set of antlers during the first 1.5 years of their life and generally that first set of antlers is spikes. Young deer are growing rapidly during this time and most of their nutritional intake is used in muscle and bone development. In cases where young deer have excellent sources of nutrition, it is not uncommon for a 1.5 year old deer to have 6 or maybe even 8 points.

A white-tail buck’s antlers begin to grow around June. During this growing period, the antlers are covered in a soft skin which is called “velvet.” The velvet is made up of blood vessels which supply calcium, phosphorus and protein to the growing antlers. By October, they are usually completely formed and are no longer growing. When this occurs, the blood vessels begin to dry up, and the velvet begins to detach.

Bucks speed up this process by rubbing their antlers on trees. This rubbing process also helps to polish antlers and strengthen the buck’s neck muscles for the rut.

A white-tail buck’s antlers generally increase in size with each year of his life, dependant on availability of food and nutritional intake. After about 4.5 years, a buck’s body will stop growing and almost all nutritional resources will go into antler development. If a white-tail buck is allowed to mature to this age, this is when he can really grow an impressive “rack.” Bucks in the wild will generally peak out around their 5.5 or 6.5 year and from then on antler growth usually diminishes.

Around late February, a buck will shed his antlers due to a change in hormone levels following the end of the rut. But these sheds do not go to waste, they provide a rich source of nutrients (calcium and phosphorous) to small mammals such as squirrels, chipmunks and other rodents.

Learning more about Mississippi’s fish, wildlife, and plant resources will enable us to be better stewards of these precious resources. Spread the word.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore and enhance fish, wildlife and plant resources throughout Mississippi.