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September 2000

Antlers: A Crowning Glory

On the hoof, antlers and horns are a regal sight. Once discarded, they speak volumes about the former owner.

Late fall mornings like this one, with frost painted like icing on every fallen leaf and a sky as clear as mountain water, usually inspire awe and contentment. But all I feel is fear. A few minutes ago, the silence of the morning was broken by a thrashing in the brush and a snort. I’m camped on a high bench in the middle of Montana’s grizzly country, so my first thought is “bear.” I stare hard into the brush, and wait.

Leaves shiver violently as the animal tramples through the brush. Suddenly, a bull elk lurches into the clearing, a beam of morning sunshine shimmering off its antlers. Branches and stems of grass dangle from the tines, clues to the rustling sounds. He was thrashing against the bushes, trying to remove the velvety coating hanging from his antlers. The rack, at least 4 feet across and branched in four tines per side, looks like–there’s no other word for it–a crown.

“The moose is larger, the bear more powerful, the mountain lion more mysterious, and the whitetail more graceful,” Doug Peacock wrote in Among the Elk, “but the bull (elk)…is certainly the most regal of North America’s great wild creatures. And his crowning glory is a magnificent rack of antlers.”

A true crown of antlers is found only on members of the deer family–moose, elk, caribou, and, of course, deer. Unlike horns, which are bone covered with keratin (the same stuff as fingernails and claws) and continue to grow throughout an animal’s life, antlers are purely bone and are shed and regrown every year.

It is a process that begins in spring. As the days lengthen, the testosterone level of the males begins to rise. Small swellings appear on the “pedicels” — the bumps atop the skulls of males. In the lushness of summer, the antlers grow as much as half an inch a day, for one of the fastest bone-growth rates in nature. Moose antlers grow even faster, as much as three-fourths of an inch in that time.

A fuzzy brown skin known as velvet protects, nourishes, and fuels these growing bones with a multitude of blood vessels. Because the antlers are living material, they’re sensitive during the growing stage, so the animals avoid knocking them against trees or damaging them. It was once thought that an animal could be aged simply by counting the number of tines, or points on its antlers. It is not that simple. Horned animals, like bighorn sheep and musk ox, do add a layer to their horns each year, like a tree ring. But the size and shape of antlers in deer, elk, moose, and caribou are affected by a combination of factors, including genetics, health, nutrition, and age.

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