5 Reasons Bucks Have Antler Growth Deformities

Have You Ever Killed an Abnormal Buck?

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Damage to the PedicleInjuries to the BodyGenetic TraitsAgeAnd More

1 | Damage to the Pedicle

After harvesting two bucks in two days with spikes on only one side, I contacted Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, & Parks deer biologist William McKinley. He directed me to Gabe Karns from Auburn University who was researching the phenomenon of spike-on-one-side (SOS or SOOS) bucks. From a sample size of 71 such animals, Karns was able to assign probable cause to 44, 34 of which were the result of pedicle or skull trauma (likely due to fighting). Due to sample collection protocol, he couldn’t determine if other cases may have been the result of healed leg fractures, old gunshot wounds or other skeletal injuries, though previous research indicates that as a likely cause. Karns added that any damage to the pedicle, including antlers that failed to cleanly separate when shed can negatively affect antler development. The buck in the photo was aged at 9 1/2 using the tooth-wear-and-replacement method. This old buck probably sported a more typical rack through his earlier adult life.

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2 | Injuries to the Body

Most hunters know that skeletal injuries, particularly to the long bones of the legs, often result in antler deformities. The interesting thing is that the deformity occurs on the opposite side of the body from the injury. We’re not quite sure of the mechanism here but it could have something to do with the fact that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, and vice versa. Research has also shown that if the injury is not too severe, deformities due to skeletal injuries progressively disappear with each subsequent antler-growth cycle.

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3 | Genetic Traits

There are two major causes of non-injury-induced abnormalities. According to Kip Adams of the Quality Deer Management Association, research suggests that upwards of 50 percent of the deer in wild populations have the genetic make-up for abnormalities like sticker points, drop or forked tines, webbed or palmated beams and the like. However, those genetic aberrations often don’t manifest themselves until later in life. We just don’t see them in that high of a frequency largely because the deer never live long enough to express them.

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4 | Age

Sometimes age alone is enough to cause abnormalities. Wild deer seldom live long enough to experience it, but over time, their bodies simply start to deteriorate. And as those of us who are getting up in years know, it often starts with the bones. It may begin with simple things like sticker points on the bases. Nonetheless, antlers can become increasingly more gnarly. 

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5 | And More

Yet another curious abnormality involves deer that retain velvet-covered antlers into the fall, sometimes referred to as stags, and there are several causes. The most common is some type of injury or malady to the testes. The deer gets an initial surge of testosterone, which stimulates antler growth as the days grow longer. But the second, end-of-summer surge never occurs, so the antlers don’t mineralize and die.

A more unusual example of this is the antlered doe. For a variety of reasons, female deer sometimes experience unusually high testosterone levels and will grow antlers as a result. According to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Former Deer Biologist Gerry Lavigne, “In most instances, doe antlers are spikes, which remain covered with velvet.” And they’re not as unusual as you might think. “Of the 2,000-plus hunter-killed does MDIFW biologists examine each year, five to 10 does are observed to have antlers,” says Lavigne.

Again, the specific mechanisms are complex and varied but antlered does typically don’t shed velvet or antlers. Though rare, “does” with larger, polished antlers do occur. They’re not does that simply identify as bucks. These deer often have reproductive organs of both sexes and are abnormalities in and of themselves, termed hermaphrodites or pseudo-hermaphrodites.

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Editor's Note: This was originally published September 11, 2017.

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