Quickly approaching is the arrival of "a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer" pulling Santa Claus on Christmas Eve to the homes of all who expect him.
Reindeer, more familiar in North America as caribou, are unique among the five species of cervids or antler bearers because both the male and female grow antlers. This fact must have been recognized by Santa, whose eight reindeer have at least one girl's name, boys' names and unisex names.
The other four deer species include moose, elk, mule deer, and in Western New York, the ubiquitous whitetail deer.
This image of a single shed whitetail deer antler from the personal collection of Dennis Walrod demonstrates four points, which if paired up with the opposite antler, represents an eight-point buck. During growth the soft antler is covered by skin, blood vessels, nerves and scent glands all together called “velvet.”
Photo by Robert. M. Ungerer
Locally, deer appear plentiful and a nuisance because they devour shrubs and run into automobiles on highways. However, hunters feel deer populations have been allowed to fall due to coyote predation of fawns and loss of habitat. Without a doubt, whatever one's opinion, spotting the male deer (buck) with a large set of antlers in a field or running across the road is a thrilling encounter with one of nature's beautiful creatures.
Considering all mammals, it seems highly improbable elaborate, bony growths from the skull could evolve.
Biologists have determined antlers developed 25 million years ago. Function is questionable, but researchers conclude deer with large antlers receive higher social ranking among younger male deer. Females invariably choose to mate with larger-antlered deer.
Antlers anatomically are simply two bones growing out of the skull symmetrically positioned and shaped, then cast off or shed in late winter to grow larger again the next year. Horns on sheep, goats and cows differ from antlers because horns continue to grow during the lifetime of the animal, are attached to the skull with cartilage, and are covered with keratin similar to a hoof.
The seemingly miraculous process by which antlers grow is explained by Dennis Walrod, the local outdoor writer and book author in his 2010 updated second edition book, "Antlers - A Guide to Collecting, Scoring, Mounting, and Carving."
He states about four months after a male baby deer (fawn) is born, his testosterone level rises. Tiny bumps develop from antlerogenic tissue on the fawn's skull. The following summer testosterone levels rise again, stimulating growth of a small spike antler.
Each year a new, larger set of antlers grow only to be shed after the mating season called the "rut." An antler is a true bone that I find fascinating. A large artery and vein course through the center of the developing antler.
Initially, the soft antler is covered by skin, capillaries, nerves, scent glands and hair follicles altogether called "velvet." Growth in larger deer species approaches inch/day. To generate antlers, calcium is depleted from the skeleton, causing temporary osteoporosis. By late summer the velvet covering dries up. The buck rubs the velvet off on bushes and saplings, leaving bony, hard antlers. Rising testosterone levels stimulate the buck to mate with receptive females. Two bucks may spar by clashing antlers with each other to establish the right to mate with a doe. Observers report this sparring action is more pushing than spearing.
Hair growth on the velvet antler is sensitive to breezes and touch so the male can "feel" where his antlers are in relation to surrounding bushes and trees. Similarly, whiskers allow dogs and cats to feel the size of an opening when in search of prey in a hole. Curiously, if antlerogenic tissue is surgically removed from the male deer skull then transplanted to a mouse skull, small spikes grow on the mouse like an antler.
Antlers are useful to man in many ways. Today, scientists study rapidly growing antler cells, which behave like stem cells. Man finds shed antlers desirable for display and carving. The growing velvet antler is thought by cultures in China, Korea, Tibet and Japan to have medicinal properties which current research may prove true. In the same countries velvet antler is thought to have aphrodisiac properties, increasing sexual desire and performance.
Antlers come in all sizes and shapes. The next time you encounter a whitetail deer or see a reindeer later this month, you can appreciate the beautiful appearance and unique anatomy of their antlers.