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Deer and Deer Antler

herd of deer at kanha

Introduction

The deer is a type of even-toed ungulate, which are mammals with hooves where the hoof is a modified nail. Deer belongs to the order Artiodactyl, which includes even-toed ungulates. The Cervidae family, or deer family, consists of ruminant ungulates characterized by a moist, naked nose and prominent facial glands. Male deer have solid, branched appendages on their heads called antlers. They lack a gall bladder and typically have no upper incisors, though canines may be present.

Since ancient times, deer antlers have captivated humans due to their beauty and spectacular natural appearance, often symbolizing male strength and dominance. Scientifically, antlers are intriguing due to their regenerative properties, which are relevant to various fields of biology including bone biology, developmental biology, zoology, evolutionary biology, and endocrinology. What sets deer antlers apart from the horns of other animals like goats, sheep, antelope, and cattle are three unique characteristics: they are solid, usually branched, and shed annually.

 

Indian Deer species without the Antlers

  1. Indian Chevrotain or Mouse Deer

    The Indian Chevrotain, also known as the Mouse Deer and recognized as the smallest deer in India, is a distinctive ruminant distinguished by its three-chambered stomach, unlike the usual four-chambered stomach found in other deer species. Unlike many other deer, Indian Chevrotains do not have antlers but do possess long canines, a feature observed in both males and females. However, it’s only the adults that display canines protruding below the lip line. This primitive species shares its lineage with relatives in Southeast Asia and West Africa, highlighting its widespread yet unique family connections.

 

Muntjac deer

 

  1. Musk Deer

    India is inhabited by four species of Musk Deer, all of which are found in the Himalayan region. Similar to mouse deer, these species lack antlers, which distinguishes them from many other types of deer.

 

Female Musk Deer

 

 

The Composition of the antlers

Deer antlers are extensions of an animal’s skull and are composed of a single structure that includes bone, cartilage, fibrous tissue, skin, nerves, and blood vessels. The gross composition of antlers is fundamentally similar to other bones, but they contain a higher proportion of organic matrix and less mineral content compared to typical skeletal bones. This unique composition allows antlers to grow rapidly and be shed annually, a process regulated by hormonal changes and environmental factors.

Characteristics of the antlers

Antlers are one of the fastest-growing tissues in the animal kingdom. Shortly after shedding their bony antlers, deer grow new ones covered in velvet—a finely furred skin with a network of capillaries. As a hard burr or ring develops at the antler’s base, blood supply is cut off, and the velvet dries up. Deer then rub this skin off on branches and the ground to reveal their new solid headgear. Evolutionary biologists suggest that antlers are used for sexual display and male-to-male combat. The period when deer are seen with hardened antlers and velvet varies depending on location and season.

Antlers usually grow only on male deer, although female reindeer (genus Rangifer) also develop them. Most deer species start growing antlers in the spring of their second year. This is special because antlers grow after birth, unlike other body parts like limbs that develop before birth. Also, the size of a deer species affects the size of its antlers; larger deer species tend to have larger antlers. Each species of deer has its own unique antler shape, and the size of the antlers changes relative to the size of the deer’s body.

 

Antler velvet residue, Chital, Bandhavgarh, India

 

The Antler Cycle

In most species, only male deer grow antlers, which start developing when they reach puberty under the influence of male hormone from their developing testes. Antlers go through a yearly cycle of hardening, shedding of velvet-like skin, and regeneration, all controlled by changes in testosterone levels.

New antlers grow when testicular activity is low, and they mature as testosterone levels rise again before the mating season. By this time, antlers become fully hardened and shed their velvet, leaving behind hard, insensitive bone structures. These antlers are used by males to fight for dominance and to attract females during mating season. As long as testosterone levels stay high, the antlers stay attached to the skull. This duration varies from species to species, usually aligning with the male’s fertility period.

Once testosterone levels decrease, the hard antlers are shed, and a new set quickly grows back, similar to how wounds heal. Each new set of antlers grows larger and more complex as the deer grows bigger. Males continue to grow and develop their antlers for at least half their lifespan, and they are most successful at mating when they are physically mature with large antlers.

Also Read : 10 Types of Langur Monkey Species in India

Functions of the Antlers

Antlers have evolved with various functions that explain their importance. One key role is as weapons used in combat between males of the same species, where they compete for dominance. Antlers are also used for display, helping males establish dominance or attract females. Additionally, antlers may serve in defense against predators or play a role in thermoregulation during growth.

Among these roles, the primary function of antlers as weapons in intra-specific combat is well-established. Males use their antlers as fighting tools, especially during the rutting season when they compete for access to females. During aggressive encounters, the animals initially engage in ritualized displays, and either may back down. As the encounter intensifies, they lock antlers and attempt to push each other backward and off balance. This behavior is most pronounced during the rutting season when competition for mating rights is at its peak.

In conclusion, deer antlers serve multiple important functions in the natural world. They have evolved primarily as weapons used in intra-specific combat among males during periods of competition for dominance and access to females, particularly evident during the rutting season. Antlers also play a role in display, helping males establish dominance hierarchies and attract mates. While other hypotheses suggest roles in defense against predators or thermoregulation during growth, the predominant and well-established function of antlers remains as tools for male-male competition and display within deer species. Understanding the evolutionary significance and behavioral dynamics associated with antlers provides valuable insights into the ecology and social behavior of these fascinating animals.

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