Wild Boneheads of Nature

Learn About Deer Sex – Antlers, Genes, Hormones and Nutrition

A trail camera caught this buck in Vernon County, Missouri, while his 207 5/8 B&C antlers were still in velvet

I changed out the memory cards in my trail cameras yesterday.  This always feels like Christmas, not knowing what I will find “under the tree.”  This time, the biggest excitement was a close-up of a buck that stuck its head right into the corner of the frame, showing off a budding set of antlers.

Looking at pictures like this one over the years has brought home to me just how amazing deer antlers are.  Most of you probably know that calling the headgear of deer, elk and moose “horns” is technically incorrect.  Goats and antelopes have horns, which consist of the same material as your fingernails.  Antlers consist of bone.

What you might not know is that during the peak of antler growth in mid-summer, white-tailed deer antlers can grow as much as two inches…a day!

I learned this after noticing almost unbelievable branching in the antlers of a deer I had been monitoring for a few weeks.  This was back before Missouri’s first documented case of chronic wasting disease (CWD).  Back then, I put out corn to attract deer to my trail cameras.  Now doing anything to artificially concentrate deer is irresponsible, because it promotes CWD transmission.

Anyway, because I had the same deer coming to my cameras on a regular basis, it was easy to track the growth of individual bucks by their antlers.  One that I had been watching appeared to be destined to have a nice four-point rack.  Then two more points appeared.  And then two more.  I never see the eight-pointer during deer season, but the astonishing growth of his antlers sent me to reference books and deer biologists for more information.  They said that whitetail bucks with a combination of ample nutrition and the right genes could sustain antler growth of eight inches in a week.  So the guy seen in the first photo here could be a wall-hanger in just a few weeks.

In my imagination, he went on to resemble the deer in the second photo.  This also is a Missouri deer.  It was killed by an Indiana resident Owen Mason last year in Vernon County.  This image was captured with a trail camera on a neighboring farm.  Antler geeks would not forgive me if I failed to mention its official Boone and Crockett score – 207-5/8.

Rapid growth wasn’t the most interesting thing I learned in my modest research into antlers.  Later that year I got a call from a hunter who had shot an antlered doe.  I knew that does sometimes grow antlers, just as some hen turkeys grow beards, but I wasn’t prepared for what I learned.

First, antlered does aren’t as rare as I expected.  Depending on which source you consult, as many as one in 65, or as few as one in 4,437 whitetail does, grow antlers.  It’s all a question of hormones.  Like humans and other mammals, both male and female deer produce testosterone.  Most does have too little to grow antlers, but if plotted on a graph, individual testosterone levels would be a continuum, with most does falling at the low end and a few producing enough of the male hormone to grow pretty respectable antlers.

The most recent download from one of my trail cameras caught this promising little whitetail buck, setting my mind spinning down the antler rabbit hole. Jim Low Photo

The average antlered doe – if that’s not a contradiction in terms – has very poorly developed antlers.  Often they retain some velvet late into the fall and are not thoroughly hardened.  That was definitely not the case with two deer harvested in Missouri in 2011.  One was a nice 9-pointer taken in Platte County.  The other was a 10-pointer that fell to a hunter in Wright County.  Both racks were typical in form and fully hardened.

Because Missouri’s hunting regulations distinguish between antlered and antlerless deer, rather than bucks and does, the hunters had to burn their buck tags, even though their deer were females.   And when I say they were females, I mean that in every sense except antlers.  Biologist tell me that most antlered does are fully functioning females, capable of reproducing.  You can draw your own conclusion about how mating with a 10-point doe might affect the gender identity of a buck.

Diving deeper into deer hormones and gender, it turns out that white-tailed deer can possess characteristics of both sexes.  A fully functional female can have a penis, and an otherwise virile buck can have internal or external female organs.  In most cases, the misplaced genitalia are underdeveloped.  In many cases, they might go unnoticed, but on the other hand, they can leave a hunter scratching his head as he tries to figure out which tag to put on the deer he just shot.

If the ratios mentioned earlier hold true for Missouri, our annual harvest of 280,000 deer could include anywhere from 70 to 8,000 sexually ambiguous deer.  So before you field dress your buck or doe, examine it closely.  Your buddies might think it’s a bit odd when you stroll back into camp humming The Kinks’ gender-bending anthem, Lola.