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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.
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.