Antlers: What's Their Function?

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It’s time to appreciate some of the most admired anatomical features in nature: antlers. Antlers are extensions of the skull grown by members of the deer family. Unlike horns, antlers are shed and regrown each year and can represent a huge energetic investment for their owners. Let’s take a look at several of the amazing antlers here at The Field Museum.

Caribou

1640297187 caribou Antlers: What's Their Function? Caribou (also known as reindeer) use their antlers to scrape away snow and soil to find food, as well as to defend themselves. Both male and female caribou have antlers, making them the only deer species in which females have antlers! Large antlers have lots of surface area to allow for body temperature regulation while they are growing, and their impressive design can both show status and attract mates. Since caribou are well-adapted for cold, snowy weather, you’ll find them living in places like northern North America, Russia, and Scandinavia.

Moose

1640823933 moose Antlers: What's Their Function? Moose and their massive antlers are native to nearly all northern forest zones (Europe, North America, Siberia, Baltic States, and parts of Asia). These antlers can grow to be really big—moose antlers can have a six-foot spread! Their impressive size can attract mates, as well as warn other bulls (males) to stay away. Their extremely long legs are helpful in such snowy regions, but these environments are changing with global warming.

Elk

1632764655 elk Antlers: What's Their Function?

Elk were once seen all over North America, but now these animals are mainly found in heavily wooded areas of the American West. Developing antlers have blood vessels underneath a velvety skin, which can help to regulate an animal’s body temperature. Large antlers might also attract mates and intimidate rivals because healthier elk will have larger sets. Bull (male) elk use their antlers to fight each other for mates and territory.

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White-tailed Deer

1640824150 white taileddeer Antlers: What's Their Function? White-tailed deer are by far the most widespread ungulate (hoofed animal) in the Americas; you can spot them from Canada all the way down to parts of northern South America. Unlike elk, whitetails do not gather and protect “harems,” or large groups of females. The males face off one-on-one during the rut or mating season. There have been cases of fighting males getting their antlers entangled and eventually dying, unable to feed. “Deer season” (for hunters) begins after the rut.

Mule Deer

1640824071 muledeer Antlers: What's Their Function?

These antlers have a unique forked shape. Mule deer, named for their large ears, are found in North America west of the Mississippi River and especially in the Rocky Mountains. Mule deer use their antlers to compete with each other for mates and territory. A deer’s developing antlers have blood vessels underneath a velvety skin, which can help regulate body temperature.

We should also remember that antlers fill an ecological role, so their usefulness extends beyond the deer. Once they are shed, they become an important source of calcium and other minerals to a variety of small animals, especially rodents (like squirrels, mice, and porcupines!). It is not unusual to find shed antlers with teeth marks on them.

In the Museum, you can see many of these antlers in the Messages From the Wilderness and Animal Biology exhibitions. You can also speak with our Discovery Squad and Science Hub staff and volunteers to learn more during your next visit.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>