Why Deer Shed Their Antlers

It's officially shed hunting season. As our addiction to this phase of the hunting year grows, so does our need to learn more. Whether it's helping you learn how this process works or throwing out a few tips to help find those trophy sheds, we'll be here to cover it.

First up, Bob Robb gives you a run-down on why deer shed bone each year.

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Deer (and other ungulates like elk) shed their antlers every year, then grow a completely new set. This shedding procedure takes up 2-3 weeks to complete, while the regeneration takes an entire summer to completebefore the cycle starts all over again. The whitetail sheds its antlers when his testosterone level decreases. When this occurs a layer of cells, called the osteoclast, cause the base to weaken by absorbing calcium from the antlers. Any amount of pressure or a simple jolt will cause the antlers to drop when in this weakened state.

Bucks shed their antlers between January and April, depending upon many factors including the animal’s age and the latitude at which it lives.

Antlers are made up of a honeycombed bone-like tissue. The mounting points on the heads of deer from which the antlers grow are called pedicles. The antlers break off (shed) from these pedicles.  Pedicles appear on a young deer's forehead during his first year.  The next year, he will develop small shafts, and by year three the first "branch" will appear.  As the deer matures the antlers will lengthen and thicken and often develop additional branches. While in the growth phase, the antlers are covered in a soft membrane referred to as "velvet," a layer of skin that supplies the growing antlers with the nutrients needed to build the bone mass.  This velvet contains many substances such as amino acids, minerals, proteins, and Growth Factor-1 (a protein hormone similar in molecular structure to insulin).

The antlers will grow rapidly for 2-4 months. During the summer, higher levels of the male hormone testosterone slows antler growth and the veins and arteries around the velvet constrict and cut off the blood and nutrient supply. The velvet then withers and begins to fall off,  a process facilitated by the deer by rubbing his antlers against trees. The whole process is repeated every year for the rest of his life.

Fortunately for the deer, shedding antlers causes them no discomfort.

--By Bob Robb

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3 Responses to Why Deer Shed Their Antlers

Tracy Lamanec wrote:
February 09, 2011

Many bucks in upstate NY have dropped their antlers before the season ends in December but I remember seeing five large racked bucks out of several hundred deer in a yarding area in late March of 1960. No small racks among them. Testosterone level is influenced primarily by photoperiod and nutrition. Pherimones from unbred does and weather conditions may have some effect. Most male fawns in my ares have very pronounced knobs, (button bucks) and I have seen some with finger size spikes. Year and a half old six and eight pointers are not uncommon nor are 2-1/2 year old spikes. I spend a lot of time in the woods and have found about 20 shed antlers over 50+ years but never while actually looking for them and never until this past summer had I found a pair. I was delighted to find the unique five point left antler while flagging my boundaries in preparation for a timber harvest. Shed hunters and people who write about it seem to always find pairs. After 15 - 20 minutes of searching in expanding circles around the left antler I found the four point right one about 80 feet away. I had many pictures of the nine point buck on my trail cameras from the previous summer. He had the same unique odd sticker on the left antler again this year and where there were small bumps at G4 and branches of the G2's were all at least two inches long. I have yet to see him or even get a daytime picture of him. He was not around during hunting season until 5 am on the last day of muzzleloader season. The 13 pointer was looking right into the camera at about ten feet as if thumbing his nose at me. I froze my buns that day and saw a group of at least seven deer outlined against the snow moving through thick brush about 300 yards away. I couldn't make out any antlers. I have several pictures of lesser bucks since then, a pair of six pointers about a week ago and a spike with a freshly shed left pedicle. Once the armpit deep snow is gone you can bet I'll be shed hunting.

Ryan wrote:
February 09, 2011

I think this article covers HOW a buck sheds his antlers (and grows them again), but I didn't see a lot of WHY. I think the WHY might be more along the lines of a survival technique: the antlers would be a hindrance in late winter and spring to moving and feeding. A hindrance that is acceptable during the breeding season to secure mating privileges. Compare the environments that horned animals: those head implements that are never shed verses the environments of antlered animals. The only place that comes to mind where the 2 co-exist is the western plains where both pronghorn, muley, and whitetails are all together.

Wallace Parker wrote:
February 08, 2011

Very interesting article! I have often wondered when whitetail deer shed their antlers!My grandson and I may hunt for sheds! Thank you!