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What are antlers and what is their purpose?

Deer is a common, generic name for a hoofed ruminant mammal of the family Cervidae. There are several varities, the most common being red deer (Latin name Cervus Elaphus) and fallow deer (Latin name Dama dama).

Antlers are produced by males (stags) with the exception of Reindeer (Latine name Rangifer tarandus). Female (hind) deer generally do not produce antlers.

It is a common misconception that antlers are an addition to the head of the deer, but in fact they are an extension of the skull. They are bone which grow yearly. The development of the antler starts from the bony structure on top of the skull known as the pedicel. This structure appears around a year old in deer, and a year later a spike arises. By year 3, a branched antler replaces the spike, and this is a cycle that continues for the remainder of the life of the deer, shedding and growing each year. When antlers emerge, they're called velvet antlers as they come up as soft tissue. Blood is still circulating to the antler to maintain its growth. Following the mineralization and blockage of blood vessels in the tissue from the tip to the base, the antler hardens. Eventually, it falls off and is said to have been "shed" by the deer.

Nutritional analysis confirms that shed antlers contain protein, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and manganese.

Horns that are found on other animals, such as sheep, goats, cattle, and bison are different from antlers. Their horns are a two-part structure with an interior of bone extended from the skull covered by a sheath of keratin (the same material as human nails). Horns continue to grow throughout the life of the animal, and they never shed. The only exception is the pronghorn, as their horn sheds and regrows the horn sheath each year.

Antlers have two primary functions:
  • Objects of sexual attraction.
  • Used as weapon by stags

Antlers are intended for reproductive success. When it comes to showboating, female deer will choose the male deer with the largest and most impressive antlers. This is for protection and attraction, and often, the deer with the biggest antler is the one that guards the harem.

The secondary function of the antlers is grappling. The tines (short spikes) on the antlers create their own grooves, allowing the opposing animal to lock antlers into place, which enables the male to wrestle for power without penetrating the face of the animal.

Antlers directly correlate to the social hierarchy, with the biggest antlers being at the top of the food chain and the smallest at the bottom. The heavier the antlers are, the higher the delay in shedding the antlers. Those with larger antlers are often more aggressive, more dominant and have a higher reproductive capacity. Antlers are also a sign of genetic quality relative to body size: the more significant the antlers, the better their genes for reproduction. The quality of grazing available to deer also affect the growth and strength of antler.

Antler uses Post-Shedding

There are many ways that antlers are used once they're shed, and it's not just by humans. Here are some of the examples of how antlers are utilized:

  • In ecology, discarded antlers are a source of minerals such as calcium and phosphorus and these are often gnawed on by smaller animals. Not every animal does this, but in the regions where the soil is mineral-deficient it's mainly the case. Squirrels will rapidly chew antlers to pieces in oak forests.
  • It's long been known that antler heads are trophies. Hunters often prefer the larger antler sets for display, and it was a taxidermy firm in London during the early 21st century that began to record the sizes of antlered heads, and this started with the longest total or spread total recorded. The Boone and Crockett Club and the Safari Club Intl developed more complex scoring systems, and this was based on the dimensions of the antlers and the tines.
  • Shed hunting is the term used to search for the shed antlers in the wild, and the middle of December to the middle of February is shed hunting season, where deer, moose, and elk start to shed their antlers. Their value is reduced if they have been chewed on by other animals, so the faster they are found, the better the value.
  • Antler has been used throughout history as a hardened material to make ornaments, weapons and even toys.
  • Antler headdresses have been worn by shamans and spiritual figures of other cultures for centuries in ceremonial roles. They are still worn in traditional dances like the Yaqui Deer Dance.
  • In the velvet antler stage before maturity, antlers of elk and deer have been used as a dietary supplement or a substance for alternative medicine.
  • Elk, deer and even moose antlers have also come to be very popular forms of dog chew with owners buying them for their dogs to help their teeth to shed plaque and stay healthy and bright. Dogs love them, and as long as the piece is long enough, they're not at risk of choking on the portion of antler.
Antlers have many uses, and their continued use in today's world is plain to see.