Trees shed leaves in autumn and snakes shed their skin once a year. In the same way, deer shed their antlers every year. Yes, those huge branches on antlers grow fresh every year. At any given point of time, a deer’s antlers will not be more than a year old.
It is always the male deer which has antlers, except in the case of the caribou and the reindeer whose females also have antlers.
It takes about two to three months for the antlers to grow to their full size. And then they break off when the mating season is over.
The antlers are basically a means to attract the opposite sex during the mating season. Stags use antlers in contests of strength with other deer — a winning male usually secures more female mates.
It has been noticed that the deer also uses its antlers to defend itself. It also uses it to mark his territory. It makes marks on trees to let other antlers know that that particular area is his home.
Antlers are often mistaken for horns. But, they are very different from a cow’s horns. They are never hollow and they have a honeycomb like structure. While in some deer, the antlers may be single shafts, in some, they could have as many as 11 branches each.
The number of branches always varies with age. So, a deer’s age can be calculated with the help of its antlers.
In the first year, the deer grows two knoblike things on his forehead. These are called pedicles. When the antlers break off, they break from the pedicles and grow at the same spot next year. In the second year, a straight spike grows out of the pedicle, and in the third year, the first branch appears.
When the antlers are growing, they are covered with a sensitive skin called the “velvet”. The velvet is filled with blood vessels which helps the bone to grow. When the antlers reach their full size, a ring is formed at the base of the antlers which cuts off the blood supply to the velvet. With no blood supply, the velvet withers, dries up and finally falls off. Whatever is left is rubbed off by the deer on the branches of trees.