The plasticity of deer

Because antler growth depends fundamentally on health and nutrition as well as age and size, antlers are among the most plastic of all bones. You might be able to appreciate this fact from this photo (courtesy Jon McGowan) showing diversity in English Roe deer Capreolus capreolus, yet even the diversity shown here is far from comprehensive.


Roe deer actually have particularly odd antlers. In addition to a prominent coronet (the roughened 'lip' at the antler's base that separates it from the bony pedicle), and brow, back and top tines (or points) arranged along the rack, they sport weird gnarly spicules termed pearls at the antler base. The distribution, size and extent of these pearls is highly variable, as you can see from the photo.


Roe usually possess three points per antler. Exceptional individuals have been recorded with very long top points and no back points. Such individuals are able to stab an opponent with greater effect that is usual and there have been cases in which individuals have broken into the skull of a competitor. Normal roes may stab competitors anyway if they're unlucky enough to fall over and become pinned on their sides, but such events are rare. On the subject of rare things, antler plasticity sometimes means that you get real freaks, like the Roe deer shown here with coalesced antlers. Very weird, and very rare. Whether this individual could function normally in sparring and fighting I have no idea.

Incidentally, moose antlers have recently been shown to play a possible role in hearing as the massive palmate antler surfaces seem to act as parabolic reflectors (Bubenik & Bubenik 2008): do note that this may only apply to moose, not to most or all deer.

Went to a neat talk by Dominic Couzens the other day (his most recent book is titled 100 Birds To See Before You Die). Would talk about it but don't have time. In fact, still haven't had time to do any proper article-writing recently, just too busy with other stuff.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on deer see Deer oh deer (on British fallow deer) and Oh deer oh deer (at ver 1) on British red and sika deer.

Refs - -

Bubenik, G. A. & Bubenik, P. G. 2008. Palmated antlers of moose may serve as a parabolic reflector of sounds. European Journal of Wildlife Research 54, 533-535.


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"becoming just like all those other blogs." ? How so?
( I confess I don't read a lot of the other science
blogs, not from lack of interest, but time...I am
happy to have discovered Lord Geekington via this
blog though...)

Good post, anyhow-I'm surprised you haven't covered
jackelopes, though.

By craig york (not verified) on 08 Oct 2008 #permalink

On the topic of antler variation, I've recently become somewhat fascinated by ESPN2's hunting programmes relating to White tailed deer - the hunter lingo is amazing - its all 170 inch 10 point atypical drop tine bucks apparently.

Funny you should doan article on deer. Ive spent the last few days looking at the red deer in the enclosure at my local park, watching the alpha male charge round, keeping the females together and other stags away. But in the last few weeks Ive noticed one of the stags has odd antlers (photos here and here) They seem unsymmetrical, do you think this is genetic or due to damage while they were being grown?

[from Darren: sorry for the delay Neil. Any message with more than one url gets spam-filtered and put in a special 'junk comment' folder until I go retrieve it. That's what happened here].

"other" ... "blogs" (plural?) I boggle.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 08 Oct 2008 #permalink

There are really some really freaky forms of antlers which were found in roe deers. The one with the thick single antler is especially interesting, I reminds me very much on the Hercynian deer about which I wrote some time ago. I have already seen some really strange antlers in museums and collections, including some massive deformations. There is even the very rare phenomen of the occurence of three or even more antlers.
A very interesting phenomen is the testosteron related abnormal growth which is sometimes caused by injuries of the testicles when hunters shot on jumping roe deer.
For all those which are especially interested in this topic, there is even a book only about abnormal antler growth in roe deers: "Abnorme Böcke"
We all know deers, but normally you don´t realize how strange and freaky the whole antler thing is. This animals grow a piece of living bone out of their heads, the tissue dies and performs some kind of autotomie and it will grow again the year later.

Is there a good explanation for why injury to a limb affects the growth of the antler on the opposite side of the body in many deer? For example, I came across a white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) skull with one normal antler and one which was very short and had no tines. The tibia from the opposite side had a metal arrowhead embedded in it, significantly covered in new bone growth. I can see how it's advantageous to reduce antler growth while recovering from injury, but to do so asymmetrically seems weird.

The Buckhorn Saloon Museum, at the Lone Star Brewery in San Antonio, Texas, has an amazing collection of bizarre deer antlers.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 08 Oct 2008 #permalink

Just found some pix here.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 08 Oct 2008 #permalink

I see that it's gone from the post now, but I wouldn't be too jealous of all those "other blogs." You have one of the most-trafficked nature blogs there is (you get about four times the traffic that I do), and that's without going into all the political/meta/religious stuff. None of us can compete with Pharyngula, but given the popularity of Tetrapod Zoology I don't think that you really have to worry about competition from other science blogs.

Yeah, I removed that bit of the post because it semed unfair to all those others who don't post the 'other content' that some do, and I certainly don't want to insult people like you Brian. I have to admit, however, that I don't quite get why Greg Laden is on Nature Blog Network (no offence Greg). I am never going to do anything other than blog about the stuff I blog about (tetrapod zoology, tetrapod zoology and tetrapod zoology), and I'm reasonably happy about the fact that, despite this, Tet Zoo does pretty well (google analytics puts it in the top 10 ScienceBlogs blogs).

You're quite welcome, Darren.

I think part of the problem of science blogging is that everyone has to find their own niche. You have yours (tet zoo, tet zoo, tet zoo) and you do it well, and I wouldn't want to try to duplicate your success.

I have decided to try and cut back on the politics and other meta stuff a bit. It can be fun, but in lately I have felt that it often just clogs the tubes and makes it seem like I write about science less than I really do. Some of those posts can act as hooks to bring readers in, but I think that Tetrapod Zoology has broken the mold in terms of sticking to the science and being one of the most highly-regarded science blogs out there.

That's the impression I get from many people I talk to and the comments I have seen on the web, anyway. You do great work (good enough to turn into a book, after all), and I hope you keep it up.

DUDE YOU GOT SOME wierd deer running around youre property