If you’ve noticed that some bucks seem to be casting their antlers early this year, you’re not wrong.
“The overall health of the buck affects when it casts its antlers,” said Dr. Grant Woods, a deer biologist and host of the popular Growing Deer series (Growingdeer.com). “Factors like prolonged cold temperatures or an injury that the deer has sustained will weaken a buck’s overall body condition and make it drop its antlers early.”
The antler growing and shedding cycle is dictated by photoperiod, or daylight length. In the fall, dwindling daylight triggers a hormonal response that runs from a buck’s optic nerve to the pineal gland in its brain, which then signals the testes to increase testosterone production. It’s this testosterone increase that causes bucks to act aggressively toward each other, antlers to harden and velvet to slough off.
In the winter, the reverse process causes antlers to fall off. Beginning on Dec. 22, daylight length increases, resulting in decreasing testosterone levels, and antlers coming off.
“There is one layer of cells between the antler pedicles [what antlers grow out of] and the hardened antler that acts like super glue to hold the antlers on the deer’s head,” added Woods. “When that layer dies, antlers fall off.”
Last summer, much of the South experienced severe drought, which decreased the amount of food available to all whitetails, including bucks that need high-quality forage to maintain healthy bodies and grow big, healthy antlers.
“We know that stress and inadequate nutrition can cause early casting of antlers,” said Brian Murphy, a deer biologist and CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association (qdma.com). “Anecdotally, I’ve heard some hunters say that deer rutted earlier this year. If that happens, testosterone falls when there are no does to breed.”
Murphy added that, in general, older bucks shed their antlers earlier than younger deer in the North. In the South, the opposite occurs, with younger deer dropping their headgear earlier than their older buck brethren. And the process of antler casting won’t begin in some areas of the Deep South, like southern Alabama and southern Mississippi, until after the rut concludes, which won’t happen until late January to mid-February.
Interestingly, by controlling the amount artificial light bucks receive, scientists have been able to make deer grow and shed three different sets of antlers in just one year! Scientists also have been able to extract the pedicle material from bucks and transplant it on mice, causing rodents to grow deer antlers.
Regardless of whether you and your hunting buddies have witnessed early casting, don’t be afraid there’s an early antler-dropping epidemic taking place throughout the country.
“Deer are pretty adaptable,” Murphy added. “I don’t expect the extreme cold or drought to cause massive casting this year. Instead, I think what hunters are seeing are pockets, or small areas, where bucks are shedding earlier than in prior years.”
That’s good news, because it can take deer a couple years to fully recover from stresses like inadequate nutrition or prolonged colder-than-normal temperatures. In other words, these factors not only can cause earlier antler casting, but also can impact next year’s antler development. But don’t let all this negative antler talk stress you out. Deer are amazing creatures that continue to awe through their ability to adapt and overcome whatever’s thrown at them. Give them time to bounce back, and they’ll once again carry the heavy headgear many deer slayers drool over!
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- Biology of the shedding process
- Where and when to look for antlers
- How to find productive shed hunting areas
- Shed hunting tips and techniques
- and even how to train a dog to find antlers
Other topics include how to match up a set of antlers, dealing with competition from other shed hunters and how to enter your sheds into the record book. Get your book today!