At my father’s the other weekend, I commented offhand that we hadn’t seen many bucks lately, when the subject of our local whitetail deer herd came up in conversation. What ensued was a slightly-embarrassing (for me) discussion about how one shouldn’t expect to see any bucks (or identify them as bucks, anyway) in spring, because that’s the time of year when male deer are antler-less. Oh, yes, I grew up in Texas surrounded by hunters, and I hadn’t absorbed that male deer shed and grow antlers every single year. I had some vague notion of some antler cycle, but only a faint memory of once having known more.
Of course, when I had a chance, I hit up Google for some confirmation. Turns out deer antlers are a veritable miracle of nature, representing the fastest bone growth among mammals — some sources say they can grow an inch a week. During this growth period, the antlers are encompassed by skin rich with blood vessels and nerves. Called velvet, this skin supplies the growing tissue with nutrients. When the antlers are grown and die in the fall, the velvet also dies and falls off. Antlers are shed after the mating season, from December to February. The whole cycle is ruled by day length, so the antlers start to grow when the days grow longer in spring.
After coming by this information, I’ve been keeping the binoculars close by the back door, so I can take a super-close look at the deer’s heads as they graze through the back yard. Last night, we were rewarded. There, on the heads of a good proportion of what we thought were does, were protrusions of various sizes covered in velvet.
They weren’t quite as big yet as the ones pictured above, but there they were, these growths kicked off by the rotation of the earth and the resulting testosterone. I felt a little ignorant in that initial conversation at my father’s, as if some fundamental law of nature had passed me by (A great NPR thread on the topic: “I Was Absent That Day.”). But I tend to look at these things as opportunities to educate myself, to keep my brain fresh with new knowledge, and it also presents a chance for me to talk about biology with Callum, who has lately changed his aspiration to zookeeper, from paleontologist. I suppose bones aren’t quite as interesting when they’re gathering dust rather than growing an inch a week.