A red deer stag with a massive crown of antlers is a very impressive sight. And indeed, that is part of their function – to make the stag look more impressive to the ladies. It takes a lot of testosterone to grow those antlers and it takes a lot of food to nourish them, so large antlers are a good indication of the virility and strength of the male. Unfortunately for the stags, they lose their antlers every year and then grow a new set. And while they’re between sets of antlers, they look just like the girls!
Antlers are unique to the deer family and, for the most part, they are only grown by males. Only female reindeer (caribou) regularly grow antlers, although females of other species can grow them on rare occasions if they get a spike in their testosterone levels. Deer antler is made of bone, whereas horns of other species, like cows or goats, are made of a material similar to human fingernails. Horns grow continuously throughout the life of the animal (just like our nails), whereas as antlers are “dropped” and regrown each year.
For red deer, this happens sometime between January and April each year. The red deer rut (mating season) takes place for about one month from late September to early November. During this time, testosterone levels are at their peak. Once the rut is finished, testosterone levels drop quite rapidly, causing the deer to shed their antlers and leaving them with two small stumps, known as pedicles. New antlers soon start to grow from these pedicles. The size of the new antlers is determined by the stag’s testosterone levels, which in turn is determined by age – stags aged between about 7 and 12 years old tend to grow the largest antlers. New antlers are covered with a downy fur which protects and nourishes the antlers as they grow. This fur is shed from the antlers just before the new rutting season.
Here in Lithuania, I am lucky to be surrounded by fabulous wildlife and there are some animals I see quite regularly, such as roe deer, squirrels and buzzards. However, despite their prevalence, there are some that are secretive and that I rarely see. Until very recently, I had not managed to see or photograph any red deer. So you can imagine how excited I was when I spotted these three stags in my local forest! They were quite a distance away and initially I thought they were females because of the lack of antlers, but my photos clearly show the pedicles on two of the stags, while the third appears to have lost only one antler so far. (I am assuming the single antler is an old antler rather than a new one because it is shiny as opposed to being covered in fur.) I’m not sure if they were embarrassed by their lack of masculinity or were just skittish, but they bolted as soon as they spotted me. But now that I know where they are, I’ll be going back for more photos!