Why do deer have antlers?

Antlers have long been a fascination of people, in fact, our interest in them goes right back to the cavemen. Ancient paintings sometimes depict deer and deer hunting, often showing beasts with prominent, often over-sized*, antlers, being subjected to spear and arrows

Deer are only ruminant (an even-toed ungulate that chews cud regurgitated from one of its four stomach chambers) that possess antlers. Antlers (which are made of bone) are present in all male deer, except Musk deer and Water-deer.

Two ideas that have been used to explain the function of antlers

Firstly, deer have antlers to mediate relationships between individuals. For example, a male with large, imposing head adornments, could intimidate and lesser antlered competitor, hence averting a potentially risky battle for both parties.

And, of course, if a fight does break out, possessing large antlers make it more likely that he will injure, or even kill, his adversary; hence maintaining his social rank in the local deer hierarchy.

Secondly, antlers could also be a deterrent to predators. The tines of some species can be quite sharp, so a lynx or wolf may be less inclined to attack a deer, if it has been injured in the past by trying to bring down a well-appointed specimen.

Also, a large, multi-branched head will give some protection when fighting another deer; since the opponent’s tines are less likely to find a way through the large mass of points and branches (and make damaging contact to the head), compared to a lesser antlered beast.

However, in a land frequented by people who hunt them, large antlers are likely to prove fatal to the deer.

*Over-sized antlers: Do bigger deer grow bigger antlers?

In a nutshell, yes, they do. But there’s a little more to it than the simple relationship of large animal, large head adornments. 

I will explain…

You would expect a bigger deer, to grow bigger antlers, wouldn’t you? After all, a large species of deer, like red deer, is almost certainly going to have much longer and more impressive crown than a comparatively modest sized species, like roe deer.

The reason I said ‘almost certainly’ and not ‘always’, is because a big red deer, which could be as tall as 1.3 metres high and weigh 200kg, could actually have no antlers at all; these antlerless beasts are called hummels. They’re not common, but a hummel can reign supreme over similar sized antlered specimens and, therefore, be the dominant male in the area.

However, back to the main point. It turns out that large individual specimens do grow bigger antlers, even after their extra body size has been taken into account.

In other words

Large specimen deer do grow disproportionally large antlers.

It must be said though, that this relationship has not been proven for all species of deer.

My experience does suggest that this could be true for roe deer. However, my ‘findings’ are based on a statistically insignificant sample size, non-rigorous methodologies, estimates of dimensions based on observations made by the eye and measurements taken from digital images—hardly a sound basis from which any meaningful conclusions could be drawn!

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