Antlers, horns, bone, no matter what you call them they are the very thing that catches your attention when you see a majestic whitetail buck standing in the open field, or alongside that country road. These protrusions of modified bone adorning the head of a majestic animal somehow hold a special attraction to both hunters and non-hunters alike.
The more one learns about antlers, the more magical and awe inspiring they become. Actually, antlers and horns are two completely different things. Antlers are solid bone, while horns consist mostly of keratin, a material similar to that which makes up our own fingernails.
One of the first things you may notice about antlers is the fact that no two are alike. They are like finger prints, each one is unique, and they can often be linked back to the animal they came from year after year.
That’s right, that massive set of antlers that trophy buck carries around, or the huge rack sported on the head of the regal elk, was grown in just a few short months. Whether it is a buck’s first small set of spike antlers, (spike meaning one on each side), or the trophy rack of every hunter’s dreams, those antlers were grown from nothing in late winter, to gargantuan in just a few short months.
Deer and elk antlers are shed or cast their antlers, as it is known, each year in late winter or early spring. The animals then start to regrow their antlers a few weeks later. Amazingly, a completely new set of antlers is formed in just four to six months of growing.
Research has shown that antler tissue is some of the fastest growing tissue in the animal kingdom. The antlers of a mature buck can grow as much as ¼” per day during peak growth.
As antlers are being grown they are covered by a soft tissue with tiny hairs called velvet. This velvet covering not only protects the tender antler, but helps to carry blood and nutrients to the freshly grown antler. Injuries can, and often do, occur to the soft developing antlers which cause them to exhibit abnormal growth patterns or appearance.
However, under normal growing conditions, and barring injury to the antler itself, or the animal, the antlers from a single buck will look remarkably similar from year to year. As the animal matures and grows, so does the set of antlers he grows.
Once the animal has reached physical maturity, and less of the nutrients are required for the deer to develop skeletal mass, more of that mineral goes into growing bigger antlers. Those bigger antlers and bigger body size help the buck earn his place in the social and breeding order.
One of the reasons the bow hunting only counties of Logan, Mingo, Wyoming, and McDowell Counties has the reputation for trophy bucks is due to the fact that the bucks of southern West Virginia have the chance to live longer and reach their full antler potential. As big as our local bucks are it is even more amazing that each monster set of record class antlers grows new each year.
With a little luck, soon there will be another antlered monarch roaming the hills of the mountain state. Once the proposed elk restoration plans take off, there will be an even more impressive set of antlers growing each year. As impressive as they are to look at, it is even more impressive to know that each set of magnificent antlers were grown in just a few short months.
— Roger Wolfe is an Outdoor Columnist for Civitas Media. He can be reached at [email protected]