Hid­den Bri­tain

One of na­ture’s mir­a­cles is hap­pen­ing right now

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - NICK N BAKER a nat­u­ral­ist, au­thor and TV pre­sen­ter.

The ‘Monarch of the Glen’ looks most hand­some when about to be­gin the au­tumn rut. But it is now, in early sum­mer, that a red deer stag ar­guably is at his most im­pres­sive. One of na­ture’s mir­a­cles is hap­pen­ing dur­ing the sum­mer, and it’s oc­cur­ring right there be­tween his ears.

Antlers are unique to deer – a pair of de­cid­u­ous, cra­nial ap­pendages whose pri­mary func­tion is to make the owner look im­pres­sive to fe­males and strike fear in his sex­ual competition. They also serve as tools in du­els of strength with closely matched ri­vals.

Un­like horns, which are per­ma­nent and con­sist of a bony core within a sheath made of ker­atin, antlers are en­tirely bone and grown in time for the short mat­ing sea­son and then shed again the fol­low­ing year. Most red deer stags will have dropped their antlers back in the spring, and as soon as this hap­pens a new pair starts to de­velop.

When a young male is be­tween three months and a year old, a spe­cialised pair of bony bumps ap­pear just be­hind the eyes. These are the pedi­cles, the liv­ing plinths from which ev­ery pair of antlers will sprout and where the pro­duc­tion starts. Pedi­cles are sur­rounded by a tis­sue called the pe­rios­teum, which, un­der the in­flu­ence of testos­terone, be­gins to mul­ti­ply. This cell pro­duc­tion pro­ceeds up and away from the skull, cre­at­ing a soft car­ti­lagi­nous scaf­fold: the shape of the fu­ture antler. A sup­ply chain with the rest of the body is set up, with a rich plumb­ing of blood ves­sels bring­ing fur­ther build­ing blocks to the site. Min­er­als such as cal­cium and phos­phate are de­posited and hard­en­ing oc­curs.

Grow­ing up

Like a pro­duc­tion line, the antler-build­ing process con­tin­ues all sum­mer. Grow­ing tips are fol­lowed a few cen­time­tres be­hind by a band of con­struc­tion that sets the structure in its fi­nal hard­ened po­si­tion. The de­vel­op­ing antlers are un­like the fi­nal prod­uct, be­ing much softer and en­veloped in skin, which is in­su­lated with a dense pelage of fine hairs. Antlers in this phase are said to be “in vel­vet” but they feel more like the fine bris­tles of a grade-one buzz cut.

Con­struc­tion races ahead at an n in­cred­i­ble rate: it has to. Up to o 2.5cm of growth a day makes an ntler for­ma­tion the fastest tis­sue gr rowth in the an­i­mal king­dom. It t is a colos­sal in­vest­ment of m ma­te­ri­als, since a big stag in h is prime can pro­duce a set of an ntlers weigh­ing 14kg. All that ti ssue needs to be found within fe ewer than four months of dr rop­ping last year’s antlers. In po oor habi­tats, a stag may take ou ut a ‘min­eral over­draft’ on other pa arts of his skele­ton, cre­at­ing te em­po­rary os­teo­poro­sis.

Come early au­tumn, the an ntlers are com­plete. Now be egins the un­veil­ing. The vel­vet, in nclud­ing all of the blood ves­sels an nd nerves that it con­tains, dies of ff, dries up and fi­nally is shed. T The hard antlers are ready at last: a phys­i­o­log­i­cal mir­a­cle.

The fact that antlers grow du ur­ing the months of plenty is no n co­in­ci­dence. While the hinds ar re nurs­ing, the boys are qui­etly in nvest­ing in this au­tumn sea­son’s h ead­wear. So when you see stags mooching m around, re­mem­ber th hat though they may ap­pear to o be do­ing very lit­tle, there is pl lenty go­ing on up top.

NICK BAKER

RE­VEALS A FAS­CI­NAT­ING WORLD OF WILDLIFE THAT WE OF­TEN OVER­LOOK.

In sum­mer red deer stags di­vert phe­nom­e­nal re­sources into antler growth.

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