One of nature’s miracles is happening right now
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.
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.
REVEALS A FASCINATING WORLD OF WILDLIFE THAT WE OFTEN OVERLOOK.
In summer red deer stags divert phenomenal resources into antler growth.