The cycle of antler growth coincides with the rutting season. They begin to grow in early spring, sprouting from swollen pads on the skull. While growing, they are covered with a soft, hairy skin called ‘velvet’. Under the velvet is the blood supply, which carries nourishment to the growing bone.
Because the blood vessels are so close to the surface during the velvet stage, the antlers act as a cooling system, letting off access body heat. But this also makes them delicate – susceptible to bruising and bleeding. By late fall the antlers reach the full size and hardness. Their blood supply cuts off, and the dead and dry velvet peels away. The deer is then ready to challenge other bucks head-on for a mate.
When mating is over, the antlers drop off, leaving a pair of bony bases from which next year’s set will grow. Among more than 50 kinds of deer in the world, males usually get the antlers. But in two cases – the female caribou and reindeer – nature has opted for equality. The females use the shovel-shaped branches of their antlers to dig away snow cover and find food beneath it. After being shed, the antlers are eaten by small forest animals for the rich supply of calcium, salt and other useful minerals.
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