Nature never ceases to amaze us. One of the most impressive displays can be found on antlers of the various deer species. The velvet that adorns their antlers when developing is a remarkable phenomenon, both in terms of its growth rate and its fascinating biological significance. In this blog we’ll delve into the world of velvet.
Deer, elk and moose antlers are a type of bone structure that exhibits an annual growth and discard cycle. Each spring, the growth phase begins as antlers emerge from the skull on something called pedicles - bony extensions from the top of the skull. At this stage, antlers are covered in a soft, highly vascularized tissue known as velvet. This velvet is rich in blood vessels, which supply the necessary nutrients for rapid antler growth. Interestingly, and unique to the deer family, males growing antlers begin using calcium and other nutrients from their bones in order to more quickly grow antlers. This leads to a temporary osteoporosis that weakens their bones in an effort to grow more impressive antlers. Once the antlers are grown, the males will recover nutrients through their food - reversing the osteoporosis condition.
The velvet itself is composed of cartilage, skin, and hair-like structures known as velvet fibers. These fibers give the velvet its characteristic appearance and provide a protective layer for the developing antlers. As the antlers grow, they are nourished by the blood vessels within the velvet, enabling them to reach impressive sizes.
The growth rate of antlers can be astonishing with elk being capable of adding an inch of length per day during peak growth periods and moose adding as much as a pound of antler per day. However, the growth rate varies among species, age, and individual factors. Prime aged males generally experience faster growth rates while older males may exhibit slower growth due to factors such as hormonal changes and overall health.
Nutrition plays a crucial role as antlers require a high intake of minerals, proteins, and other nutrients to grow effectively. Deer and elk often increase their food consumption during the growing season to meet these demands. Genetics also contribute to antler growth potential as some species and individuals have naturally larger and more robust antlers than others.
After the growth phase, typically spanning a few months, the antlers reach their full size and the velvet's purpose has been served. At this stage, the blood supply to the velvet diminishes, causing it to dry and peel away. Deer and elk will rub their antlers against trees or vegetation to expedite the shedding process. Interestingly, despite being herbivores, the velvet is often consumed by the animal shedding it in order to recover additional nutrients.
Once the velvet is shed, the antlers harden, becoming solid bone structures. Antlers must be able to withstand tremendous force during battles with other males. They've been measured to be up to 6 times stronger than the animal's femur! These hardened antlers are then used for various purposes, including combat during mating season and display to establish dominance within their social hierarchy.
The size and appearance of antlers play a vital role in reproductive success and male-male competition. Larger antlers often indicate higher social status and dominance within a population, increasing an individual's chances of mating with females. Therefore, the velvet growth phase is a critical time for deer and elk as it directly influences their reproductive success and overall fitness.
The velvet found on deer and elk antlers is a remarkable feature of nature, highlighting the tremendous growth rates associated with these majestic animals. From the rapid growth driven by a rich blood supply to the shedding process that precedes hardened antlers, every stage of this phenomenon is a testament to the marvels of the natural world. Understanding the intricacies of velvet growth enriches our appreciation for the incredible adaptations that wildlife have developed over time.