Do Deer Antlers Get Bigger Each Year?

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The question of whether deer antlers get bigger each year is both yes and no. Yes, because from the age of 1-6, the current year’s antlers tend to grow bigger than those of the preceding year. On the other hand, no, because it is usually not the case for deer aged 6 and above.

Antlers are one of the fascinating and incredible characteristics of deer, particularly the bucks. Over the years, even centuries, hunters have pursued and tagged a prize on the antlers. Their deciduous nature and rapid growth make them even more interesting for both hunters and similar-minded wilds enthusiasts.

Generally, male deer grow and shed antlers annually. However, females from the caribou species of the deer family also develop antlers. Deer antlers have been a broad subject of study and discussion. Many are the people seeking to understand the deer antlers’ anatomy. This would entail their development and growth cycle, purpose, and other various perspectives. 

How Do Antlers Grow

Typically, the bucks begin to grow a set of antlers in late spring. They grow from the tips out, starting from their base attached to the skull known as the pedicles. It is worth mentioning that antler growth is hormone-regulated and controlled by photoperiod (day length). Hence, antler development coincides with breeding seasons for males to have hardened antlers to fight for their mates.

During late spring and throughout the summer, antlers are covered with velvet. This is a hair-like membrane with numerous blood vessels to facilitate blood supply. While the antlers are covered in velvet, they are vulnerable to cuts and injuries, resulting in deformed antlers.

Growing antlers are rich in water content while low in dry matter content. During growth, the dry matter is 80% protein and 20% ash (phosphorus and calcium). Later, the growth rate slows down, and the antlers start to harden/mineralize.

By late August or early September, blood stops flowing into the antlers, and the velvet begins to dry. After the velvet dries off and dies, the animals remove it by rubbing it against trees, leaving behind polished hard antlers. In fact, velvet shedding is a quick process that can happen in 24hrs or less.

At this point, the antlers’ composition reverses to high dry matter content and low water content. After the breeding season, antlers are ready to shed. Cells begin to demineralize the bone connecting the antlers, and the pedicle, weakening the skull-antler connection. Eventually, the antlers will fall off.

Antler shedding timings may vary. Averagely, some bucks will shed their antlers in late December, the rest (most) shed them by early March. Immediately deer shed antlers, new ones begin to grow, and the cycle continues.

Can You Tell Deer’s Age by Antler Size

For the record, apart from the teeth, there is no other physical way to estimate deer’s age accurately. Therefore, neither the antler size nor the number of points or spikes is a reliable guide to deer age. In fact, deer’s antler size is largely affected by heredity and diet than it is affected by age.

Nevertheless, a few physical characteristics can help estimate age. For instance, a button buck (6-12 months old) has nubs on its head, which are yet to protrude through the hide. Antlers start as nubs. Button bucks are often mistaken for does by hunters since they pretty much look alike.

Other physical characteristics that would hint the age of deer include the rump’s size and rounding, identifiable asymmetrical spikes on the antlers, and the belly’s sagging. These can give a clue but not an accurate age.

Looking at the white-tailed deer, they have fully developed skeleton by the time they are 4 years old. After full development is attained, the deer’s body can shift focus to antler growth. 

This means bucks can have their biggest antlers from the age of 4 onwards. Therefore, it is impossible to tell the deer’s age, even with well-developed antlers.  Besides, you can’t know whether you’re staring at a particular deer’s biggest set of antlers.

The only guaranteed methods to tell deer’s age are assessing teeth growth and wear and conducting a forensic aging test.

Factors Affecting Deer’s Antler Size

Nutrition

With reference to the white deer, antler growth and casting is energetically expensive. For perfect development, a deer’s diet should be protein and energy-intensive. Antlers can actually be used to gauge deer’s nutrition, particularly the energy and protein level.

To emphasize the essentiality of proteins in deer’s nutrition, two 4-year old deer feeding on an 8% and 16% protein feed can result in a 20-inch antler difference.

Mineral levels are also crucial in deer’s diet. Although it’s not documented, phosphorus and calcium are very important for antler development.

Genetics

This is mostly argued at deer camps, but it is difficult to explain in the wild. Similar to other animals, genetics is two ways. Both the father and the mother have a significant role to play. They will determine the antlers’ size and shape, with studies showing that big antlers are hereditary.

However, big-racked backs may always not produce other big-racked ones. Nutrition and habitat are also factoring irrespective of the genes.

Age

It’s almost a principle that good things in life get better with time, so do antlers. As bucks mature, antlers tend to develop better and get heavier. For button bucks, their ‘button’ antlers are noticeable at the age of 4-5 months.

At one to one and a half years, yearlings grow their first spiky antlers, which vary in size, with up to 10 or more points. The antler sizes will generally continue to grow bigger until the age of 6 years, where antler growth is maximized.

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Conclusion

Big antlers translate to deer’s good health rather than their age. Deer require high-quality habitat to manage good antlers’ development.  With habitats that do not provide adequate nutrition, deer adapt to require less food. This will consequently result in smaller body and antler sizes.

As discussed in the article, deer antlers grow bigger each year until the age of 6 years. At this age, the antlers will have reached the maximum height possible. After this age, the antlers begin to shrink again.

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