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Why do does have antlers?

Antlered  doe in late July at Lake Thunderbird.  Photo by L. Dillon

Have you ever noticed that Oklahoma deer regulations don’t specify harvest of ‘bucks only’, but rather refer to ‘antlered deer’?  That’s because some does have antlers.  I first saw the antlered doe in the photo in 2009.  I’ve photographed her many times since.  I’ll be honest, I saw her several times and skipped over taking photos of her because I thought she was an inferior buck. Duh.

Understanding antler development helps explain why some does develop antlers. Whitetail antlers grow from buttons on the skull called pedicels.  In spring, usually mid-March to April antlers begin to sprout from a combination of a surge of testosterone,  the hormone prolactin and interaction with an increased amount of sunlight.  Initially they aren’t hard and polished, but contain a lot of blood vessels and are covered with a hairy velvet.  Most doe antlers never progress beyond this stage.

By late summer a second surge of testosterone causes the velvet to die and the antler to harden into bone.  The bucks rub off the velvet and polish the antlers to fighting form prior to breeding season in November.  Because most antlered does don’t have testicles, they don’t produce this second surge of testosterone.  By late December or early January, the supply of testosterone diminishes and a separation layer forms between the antler and pedicel causing it to drop off.   Next spring the process starts over again.

A single surge of testosterone can be caused by caused by a hormone imbalance, first pregnancy, tumors, or degenerative conditions of the ovaries or adrenal glands and produce velvet antlers. Occasionally there are hermaphrodites with

Same doe in November of last year.

male organs predominant. These are extremely rare and can produce a deer with hardened antlers.  I’ve also photographed a Thunderbird doe with a huge tumor dangling between her front legs.

I couldn’t find any hard numbers as to how often antlered does occur, but I know a few are harvested most years in the state.  If you have seen or harvested an antlered doe, please comment.


One comment on “Why do does have antlers?

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