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Why Reindeer and Their Cousins are Total Boneheads | Deep Look

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Channel: Deep Look
Categories: Biology   |   Environmental   |   Science  
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What if you had to grow 20 pounds of bone on your forehead each year just to find a mate? In a bloody, itchy process, males of the deer family grow a new set of antlers every year, use them to fend off the competition, and lose their impressive crowns when breeding season ends.

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Antlers are bones that grow right out of an animal’s head. It all starts with little knobs called pedicles. Reindeer, elk, and their relatives in the cervid family, like moose and deer, are born with them. But in most species pedicles only sprout antlers in males, because antlers require testosterone.

The little antlers of a young tule elk, or a reindeer, are called spikes. Every year, a male grows a slightly larger set of antlers, until he becomes a “senior” and the antlers start to shrink.

While it’s growing, the bone is hidden by a fuzzy layer of skin and fur called velvet that carries blood rich in calcium and phosphorous to build up the bone inside.

When the antlers get hard, the blood stops flowing and the velvet cracks. It gets itchy and males scratch like crazy to get it off. From underneath emerges a clean, smooth antler.

Males use their antlers during the mating season as a warning to other males to stay away from females, or to woo the females. When their warnings aren’t heeded, they use them to fight the competition.

Once the mating season is over and the male no longer needs its antlers, the testosterone in its body drops and the antlers fall off. A new set starts growing almost right away.

--- What are antlers made of?

Antlers are made of bone.

--- What is antler velvet?

Velvet is the skin that covers a developing antler.

--- What animals have antlers?

Male members of the cervid, or deer, family grow antlers. The only species of deer in which females also grow antlers are reindeer.

--- Are antlers horns?

No. Horns, which are made of keratin (the same material our nails are made from), stay on an animal its entire life. Antlers fall off and grow back again each year.

---+ Read an article on KQED Science about how neuroscientists are investigating the potential of the nerves in antler velvet to return mobility to damaged human limbs, and perhaps one day even help paralyzed people:

---+ For more information on tule elk

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