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All About Deer Antlers

(R-C-1)

Antlers are bone, unlike horn which is keratin.  We start the story of antler development with this image.  This set of antlers is from a red deer stag in hard antler (fully developed).  This means that the antler is exposed bone.  Its purpose is to display the animal’s strength and maturity to admiring females and rival stags.  The antlers have evolved to interlock with antlers of a similar size, as it is usually two stags of similar status that battle it out.

We show this image of a set of antlers darkened with the felt from the rut (the rut is the breeding season). 

The antler is a very strong bone.  Counting the number of points is not a conclusive way of telling the age, though the size and shape can indicate the age and status.  The red deer rut is from the end of September to the end of October.

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(R-C-1, R-C-3, R-C-4, R-C-5)

 

The stag carries its antlers until the spring.  The stag sheds its antlers due to the animal’s hormone change.  Due to the increase in daylight hours and age of the animal, the stag releases bone-degrading cells on a line at the base of the antler on the pedicule.  The body re-absorbs the calcium along this line causing the antler to be released and drop off.  It is common for the antlers to shed within a few days of one another, though occasionally they will shed at the same time.

 

Antlers shed form March through to May, starting with the oldest animals through to the youngest.

(R-C-6, R-C-7, R-C-8, R-C-9, R-C-10, R-C-11)

After the antlers shed, the open wound where the antler once was heals over.  The stag does not go through much pain while shedding, and it has been noticed that they jump once they shed.  This is due to the difference in weight and the sensation of losing the antler - it would be like a child losing a milk tooth.  Once healed, the pedicule produces two bumps under the skin.  This is the start of the new development (R-C-6).

A couple of weeks later the antlers are budding and starting to develop, almost like the growth on a  plant.  You can see the start of the main beam and the first branch - the brow tine (R-C-7).

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The antler is now a living, growing thing.  It has feeling and blood supply, skin and hair.  If you touch the antler on a living deer while it is growing, it is warm to the touch and you can feel a pulse.

 

Internally the growing antler has a bone which has marrow.  The bone is still soft like that of a baby.  It has cartilage which will strengthen with calcium (R-C-8).

 

The antlers grow noticeably from week to week.  As they develop they look more hairy.  The hair is unlike the body hair - it is short and fine.  This is known as velvet (R-C-9).

 

The whole antler is given the terminology ‘antler in velvet’.  Due to its fast growth it is prized by some for its health properties. 

By summer, the antlers are approximately half-grown.  You can notice the development of most of the tines (R-C-10).

By the end of July, the stag’s antlers are fully grown.  They appear larger than they will once complete.  There is still some final development.  They still have a complex blood supply which is needed to complete the calcification.  At the moment, the bone will be fragile.  It is a fine mesh which will fill and strengthen (R-C-11).

 

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The antler keeps on strengthening as it calcifies.  Once it has fully calcified the blood supply is cut off, and the skin starts to deteriorate.  Without the supply it is dead, and it shrinks and splits (R-C-12).

The split skin hangs in tatters.  The stag is irritated by this, and it rubs the remaining velvet off on heather, shrubs and trees (R-C-13).

Once the stag’s antlers are clear of velvet, it is not uncommon for them to look white.  The antler is bone, and this is its natural colour.  The dark colouring of the antler is through the    mechanical devices of the stag, and its natural environment.  Antlers are normally clean of velvet in August (R-C-14).

The colour of the antlers darkens with dirt and peat combined with plant sap and tree resin, which binds it to the antlers.  Any areas which get rubbed, such as the tines, remain light in colour.  By October, we’re in the rut and the antlers are at their darkest. 

We have now completed a full circle in this annual event (R-C-15).