A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Eight Points about Antlers

These fast-growing bones are shed every year and disappear quickly in the woods.
Antlers are among the fastest-growing bones
in the animal world.

1.    Antlers are Different from Horns:

You sometimes hear folks referring to a deer's "horns." Maybe it's a slip or genuine confusion, but those protrusions on deer and moose heads are, in fact, antlers. They're a single structure, and really fast-growing bone that are shed and regrown each year. Aside from white-tailed deer and moose, other mammals with antlers include elk and caribou.

Horns, on the other hand, have two parts. The inside is bone, like an extension of the skull. The exterior sheath covering that bone is a hard keratin covering, a form of hair follicle, just like your fingernails, but even harder. Horns aren't shed each year; they keep growing over the animal's life (except for pronghorn antelope). Animals with horns include bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bison and cows.

And unlike antlers, horns generally aren't forked or branched.

2.    Antlers are Among the Fastest Growing Bones in the Animal Kingdom

Antlers start forming in the spring and keep growing through summer, a living tissue that's circulating blood and nerves and encased in a soft velvet. If you could touch that developing antler, you'd suddenly find that it's hot, with blood rushing through it. They're growing at an incredible rate, as much as half an inch PER DAY. A bull moose – of course the female "cows" don't grow antlers -- can have a rack that adds a pound of antler per day as it grows.

Generally, the older the moose or deer, the older its rack. That said, you can’t age a deer or moose by the size of its rack. Wear on teeth is a better indicator of age than antlers.

3.    Antlers Play a Role in Mating Process

Male deer and moose will use antlers to announce their presence to others by rubbing their racks against saplings and young trees. These “rubs” are like sign posts and can reveal a rough beating by the bull moose or whitetail buck. Sometimes, bulls and bucks will spar, using their antlers aggressively against other prospective males that are interested in females. Males can get pretty beat up in this process, suffering cuts, bruises and sometimes infections and death.

In rare cases, males may even lock antlers. One instance of two moose that had locked antlers was discovered in New Hampshire in 2003. The two bulls ultimately perished of exhaustion and dehydration. But the moose were preserved as impressive, full-size mounts in battle. The two moose tour fairs and festivals in N.H. Fish and Game Department’s traveling “Forever Locked” exhibit.

4.    That Velvet is Sensitive

In the summer months, when antlers are covered in velvet, the tips are blunted and the whole rack is sensitive to the buck (or bull moose). While antlers are in velvet, the animal will avoid sparring with another male, or even rubbing against branches. If damaged while in velvet, antlers can become deformed, pointing down or split in odd angles.

And velvet is purported to have medicinal properties for people, from helping strength and supporting bone growth to all sorts of other ailments. The science is still out on this, but it’s wise to be skeptical of such claims.

5.    Deer and Moose Drop Their Antlers after Mating Season

When mating season (called the rut) wraps up, antlers have pretty much fulfilled their purpose and are shed. New Hampshire’s white-tailed deer typically shed their temporary bone in February (earlier in the north). Moose start shedding their antlers in November or December. This process can get pretty awkward for a moose that sheds one of its 40-pound antlers, then walks around with the other for a few days until finally forcing that one off.

6.    They Disappear Quickly in the Woods

When antlers fall off in the woods, it’s amazing how fast they disappear. Antlers are full of calcium, salts and other minerals that mice, squirrels, porcupines and other animals love to devour. I’ve found antlers in early winter – dropped maybe a few weeks earlier – with heavy sign of rodent marks. Other mammals, like coyotes, will drag antlers around and chew them up.

7.    Shed Hunters May Also Find ‘Em

Antlers are also the objective of shed-hunters, folks who search the winter and spring woods in search of a fine buck or bull rack. In North Country towns like Pittsburg, shed-hunting is a big deal, as people follow snowmobile trails, power lines and other corridors seeking moose antlers. They can fetch $50 for a low-quality shed or up to several hundred dollars for a nice, big rack. Even more for a pair from the same animal.

You can search for antlers on your own, but know that antler drops are pretty random. You can search high and low and never find one. Then again, you might just stumble upon one in the woods, all chewed up and raw or in perfect condition. Also, please keep in mind that late-winter/early spring is a tough time for moose and deer. If you’re slogging around looking for antlers, you can inadvertently spook the animals, putting a ton of stress on them at the time when they most need to conserve energy. It’s a good case for leaving their habitats alone until late-spring.

8.    Keeping Score of those Racks

Antlers are among those things that, well, just invite comparison. Two organizations have made kind of a science out of comparing racks. The Boone and Crockett Club has a scoring system for measuring antlers taken by all hunters, and the Pope and Young Club’s scoring system is for bow-hunters. Both are sophisticated scoring methods, and both clubs have strong emphasis on fair chase ethics of hunting.

If you have a story about antlers, let’s hear it. Shoot a note to

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.