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How Do Deer Antlers Grow?

Have you ever seen a deer with a large set of antlers and wondered how they grew so big?

Photo via Shutterstock

A deer’s antlers can grow very quickly. They are one of the fast-growing tissues in the animal kingdom. A white-tailed deer's antlers can grow as much as a quarter-inch per day. But that's nothing compared to an elk. Elk antlers can grow as much as 1 inch a day!

Deer and most of their relatives all grow antlers. Usually only the males grow antlers, except for caribous. Both male and female caribous grow antlers.

The male deer grow antlers to attract mates. A large set of antlers shows female deer how healthy the male is. The male deer, called bucks, also use their antlers to fight other males to show their worth to the females. 

But how do their antlers grow so fast? It requires a lot of energy. It may seem like they sprout overnight, because antler growth is an almost continuous process. Deer and their relatives grow antlers each spring and shed them every winter. Once antlers are shed, the process of growing them soon starts over.

Male deer have two spots on their skulls called pedicles from which their antlers grow. In the spring, the antlers begin to sprout from these spots.

The new antlers are covered by a fuzzy-looking skin called velvet. The velvet is filled with blood vessels that help transport blood, oxygen and nutrients to the area, which allow the antlers to grow quickly.

While the antlers are covered in velvet, deer don't want them to touch anything that could injure or damage them. Injuries to the velvet or even another part of the buck's body can cause the antlers not to grow properly.

When the antlers are fully grown, they harden to bone and the velvet dries and sheds, similar to a snake shedding its skin. When the velvet is shedding, the deer try to remove it by rubbing their antlers against trees and other structures. By the time mating season begins in the fall, the velvet is gone and the antlers are a hard, bony material. 

Antlers are mostly made of calcium, like your bones. But deer don't consume a lot of calcium in their diet, so it has to be produced by chemical reactions, which require a lot of the buck's energy. 

Because of how much energy it takes to grow antlers, the healthiest deer grow the biggest and most impressive antlers. Genetics and age also play a role in antler growth.

Just like genetics determine your hair and eye color and how tall you will be, it helps determine the shape and size of an animal's antlers. Age is important too. Young bucks don't grow very large antlers. It takes a few years for them to reach their full potential, usually at about 4 to 6 years old.  


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