With a deer, you would never grab the bull by the horns.

For a few good reasons: Male deer are not called bulls, they are bucks, and they do not have horns, only antlers. Antlers and horns are two distinctly different accessories.

Horns are hollow and are held atop the head of members of the bovid family. Bovids include cows, sheep, bison and goats. Horns grow continuously year-round and are covered in keratin. They do not usually branch and are found on both male and female bovids.

Antlers, on the other hand, are temporary bones found on the heads of members of the cervid family. Cervids include deer, moose, elk, caribou and others. Antlers are temporary, often branching structures, growing generally on males for only part of the year. After eight months of growth and development, antlers will drop off the animal’s head. These cranial appendages are covered with a soft skin called velvet, which supplies blood, oxygen and nutrients to the growing antler bone. It is this velvet that will be rubbed against trees during mating, or rutting season in December.

It is not only form, but function that is different for these two toppers. Horns mainly protect the skull, while antlers are for communicating, to establish dominance, and for seducing members of the opposite sex. Seduction is accomplished by the antlers because the velvet covering and the animal’s head contain the highest concentration of oil and scent-producing glands that will attract the fairer sex.

Size matters when it comes to antlers. Bigger is better — a nice rack can be up to nine pounds and spread to 25 inches wide! The ladies, or does, will notice a sizable rack, which is the result of a combination of factors, including good nutrition, age and genetics. Bucks are headstrong and will challenge each other, engaging in shoving matches to impress the girls and dissuade the competition.

It is interesting to imagine the growth process of antlers, which start as nubs, grow to substantial size, and then fall off. Spring starts the antler growth cycle again. In April, longer days stimulate a buck’s hormones and his antlers will begin to develop. Antlers are the fastest growing bone known to science, increasing up to a half an inch per day. Contrast this with human hair, which takes a month to grown that same half inch. Antlers will grow until early fall, then the bone will die and the velvet dries up and falls or is rubbed off. Finally, the antlers will be dropped or shed.

Now is the time for “shed,” or antler hunting, a sport that requires no weapon. On-Island, of the cervids, one only finds deer so one only finds deer antlers, and only if you are lucky. Mid-December through mid-February is the time to look for shed antlers. Don’t be surprised if you don’t find any. Antlers, no matter how large, disappear quickly. They are speedily consumed by rodents, rabbits, squirrels and other animals that crave their high calcium and phosphorus and have the right incisor teeth to chew the tough bone. If you are fortunate and find an antler, look for teeth marks and evidence of nibbles.

Antler’s hard bone has been used for needles, weapons, arrowheads and even harpoons. In the 18th century, French naturalist Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon hypothesized that antlers were made of vegetable matter or wood, which caused his doubters to raise questions about how antlers were attached to the deer’s head. Luckily, French zoologist Georges Cuvier ascertained their true nature a few years later.

Antler shape varies from animal to animal. They can be categorized as typical or nontypical and can have tines or points. Typical antlers are symmetrical and shoot up evenly from a beam, while a nontypical antler is asymmetrical with points or tines shooting out at different angles.

Antlers are a victory of form and strength, though they are heavy to haul around and cumbersome to carry. And while the well-endowed buck will likely get the girl, he will also have to contend with the ever present possibility that with his colossal crown, he could end up a terrific trophy.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.