Photograph by Joe Mac Hudspeth, Jr. ·


“Weird” Antler Characteristics

From the Spring 2003 issue


Weird stuff happens, everywhere – deer antlers are no exception. Examples may include single, broken, deformed, or malformed-antlered deer. Bucks exhibiting all of the aforementioned characteristics will be seen by hunters this deer season. Most of these deer, if legal, will be harvested forthright. A few of these “weird-antlered” bucks will leave hunters who are actively involved in deer management perplexed. The question most of these hunters pose is quite simple – if a specific buck is exhibiting antler malformations this year, will it recover prior to the hunting season next year, or will the malformation persist? Obviously, within some deer management programs, bucks which will recover from various antler injuries and subsequent malformations may be desirable to maintain in the population. Conversely, bucks exhibiting undesirable antler characteristics which are likely permanent, may warrant removal under objective-oriented deer management programs. In this article we will discuss the cause of several of these antler characteristics and provide some information that may help deer managers in their quandary – do we harvest that buck or not?

For several years now, deer managers have instituted a myriad of “cull,” “scrub,” or “management” buck programs. Some of these programs are well designed and understood by the majority of hunters who are under the self-imposed restraints and guidelines of these programs. A great misconception occurs when these hunters assume that they are harvesting or not harvesting specific bucks as a means to improve the genetic quality of the deer on their property. The genetic puzzle is a hard one to piece together.

Simplistically, hunters can identify certain antler traits that are desirable to them. Next, their assumption is that these bucks will breed does and produce succeeding generations of bucks that have similar, genetically transmissible desirable antler traits. The thesis of this logic is that bucks exhibiting undesirable antler characteristics will breed does and perpetuate generations of bucks with undesirable antler characteristics. The solution is then perceived by many as being quite simple - protect the desirable, let them breed the does, and remove the undesirable so that they will not breed any does. Sadly, the next assumption is that these hunters are improving the genetic composition of the deer herd by implementing these harvest criteria. At this point the logic does not match the biology.

First, any Biology 101 course teaches that during copulation the male and the female contribute equal amounts of what we will call “genetic code” for various physical characteristics. Research in deer biology has reinforced this concept. The bottom line is that the doe contributes at least half of the “genetic code” for antler size, shape, and configuration. This being the case, how can hunters selectively remove does to improve antler genetics when the does have no antlers from which a decision can be based? My reply to these hunters is that they can not! Now, do not leave me here, I believe you can improve antler size specifically and antler traits generally by selective harvest of bucks. But I do not believe, in the short term, that you can attribute a significant improvement in antler size to any harvest efforts within a deer population that are aimed at improving genetics. So, what does work?

Efforts directed toward selective harvest of a buck cohort (a group of bucks born the same year) has been shown to be successful at improving antler characteristics. In this management scenario biologists and managers assume that bucks exhibiting smaller or undesirable antler traits will continue to perform poorly the remainder of their life when compared to members of their cohort who exhibit larger or more desirable antler traits at the same age. In this situation, specific antler criteria are developed on a site-specific basis. Some deer are identified for harvest, others are identified for protection until later in life. Examples of deer that may be identified for removal include large-antlered four or six points, slick eights, and possibly even mature or semi-mature bucks that have no brow tines. Within the same program, bucks that may be identified for protection are smaller-racked bucks that are obviously young but that have configuration and characteristics that need more time to mature and become truly outstanding trophies. (A reminder and warning – never take anyone else’s medication and never apply anyone else’s deer management recommendations to your property without first seeking some qualified advice!)

After this rather lengthy introduction, let’s get back to some of the more common “weird-antlered” bucks and briefly mention if they fit in the “removal” or the “protection” category. We will begin with the easy ones first – the broken antlered deer. A common question from hunters to biologists today is “why are we seeing so many single antler bucks?” An overwhelming majority of single-antlered bucks are products of sparring or competition within bachelor groups to determine the “pecking order” or order of dominance. Although most of this sparring is done with the forelegs prior to any antler growth and hardening, considerable antler-based battles also occur. These battles break antler points and even main beams resulting in single-antlered bucks. Hunters harvest many of these broken-antlered bucks and with the recent popularity of the game or trail cameras, many others are captured on film. The deer management point to take home here is that these bucks can fully recover prior to the next hunting season. No genetic malady or damage exists in these deer that would warrant removal to “help manage” the deer population.

Also accompanying the “sparring” and even the serious fighting that is associated with the rut or breeding season are injuries to the pedicel or in some more serious instances, the skull. The pedicel is the specialized base or protrusion from which antler growth originates. Damage to these areas can result in permanent injury that would likely reoccur annually. Many management programs may justifiably identify these animals for removal from the herd. A point to remember when considering these deer is that they will not degrade the herd genetically. Their limitation and obviously justifiable purpose for removal is that compared with undamaged-antlered bucks, their potential is less than optimal.

Injuries to antlers during the summer months while they are “in velvet” and still growing can produce some interesting antler characteristics. Many abnormal points, double beams, sticker and branched points, and even abnormally directed antler growth can result from antler injury during the growing season. Obviously these bucks should not be identified for selective harvest unless their trophy value has been achieved. These antler abnormalities are neither permanent nor genetic.

Many cases of bilateral nerve damage affecting antler growth are also identifiable. These cases are most easily identified when an antler deformity is noticed on either the right or left antler and a corresponding rear leg injury is found on the opposite side of the deer. For example an injury to the left rear leg can in many cases produce deformity in antler growth on the right antler. Some of these deer can recover and present normal antler growth the next year, others may exhibit chronic annual deformity and would logically be candidates for selective harvest. Again the removal would not be for genetic reasons but as a herd improvement measure that would favor the more desirable members of the cohort.

A similar antler deformity in noticed related to a front leg injury. The difference in the manifestation of this anomaly is that the injury and the antler malformation are both on the same side of the deer. For example, a right front leg injury would produce a right antler deformity.

The preceding brief overview of antler malformations should give you an appreciation of the complex situations governing antler characteristics that you may observe this year. Some deer management programs protect specific bucks, based on antler criteria, for harvest in a future year. Other management programs identify specific bucks, based on antler criteria, for immediate removal. The intended objectives in both of these programs are to improve the size or antler quality of bucks harvested in the future. If your club or the property on which you hunt is involved in any type of management program that protects or removes specific bucks, critically evaluate your criteria. Obtain the advice of a qualified biologist and do not ever take anyone else’s medication.

About the author: Larry Castle is a Wildlife Biologist and White-tailed Deer Coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.