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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.

Antlers, or the lack of them, are a good way to tell a male from a female ungulate, except when it comes to caribou. These tundra deer are the only species in which females sport antlers, although they don’t tend to have the brow tines (over the eyes) that the males have.

As the end of summer nears, the blood supply to the velvet dries up and the bone dies. A rising testosterone level makes the males aggressive. They take that aggression out on trees and shrubs, shredding small saplings, snapping branches, rubbing the velvet off the now full-grown antlers, shining them to perfection, and polishing the crown.

A full set of antlers can be immense.

A mature elk can sport a rack that spans 5 feet across and weighs up to 45 pounds. A set of moose antlers can measure 6 feet across and weigh over 90 pounds. They are, as author Richard J. Goss has written, “an extravagance of nature, rivaled only by such other biological luxuries as flowers, butterfly wings, and peacock tails.”

But beyond being a simple extravagance, antlers play a vital role in the battle for reproduction. Like a crown, a full rack is a symbol of power, a fact not lost on females. Males with large racks are generally the most successful in breeding. The sight of a large rack is not lost on lesser males either. Often, simple posturing and displaying an impressive rack is enough for an elk to deter a fight.

When fighting does occur, however, elk can wield their antlers like unsheathed swords, poking out eyes and slicing skin. During the heat of the rut, it’s not uncommon to see elk or deer with snapped-off antlers. Many older bulls bear the scars won during years of epic battles.

By the onset of winter, the rutting season wanes and so does the testosterone level in males. They’re tired from the rut and need to shed the extra weight to avoid susceptibility to predators. A loss of calcium around the base of the antlers weakens the connection, and eventually the antlers drop off. Shedding takes place between late November and March for males. Female caribou don’t cast their antlers until after the calving season in June. For a short time, antlers can litter the forest floor like broken branches. The calcium, salt, phosphorous, and other minerals in the antlers are a gift to squirrels, mice, porcupines, and other rodents that gnaw them away to nothing.

For the next few months, the males are without antlers. But by the first hint of spring, the pedicels on their skulls are swelling again, ripe with the growth of the new year’s crown.

But all of that is far off for the big bull elk that has wandered into the clearing now. He stands proud, nostrils flared, his rack in full splendor. His stance, the morning sun, the grandeur of his antlers–it all reminds me of a line from the Sioux “Song of the Elk”: “Whoever considers themselves beautiful after seeing me has no heart.”

Such wild beauty deserves its crown.

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