Shedding Light on Shed Antlers

Many years ago, I spent a summer as a nanny on a 340,000-acre ranch in northern Arizona. Long hours of childcare were interspersed with liberating horseback rides through a landscape dotted with juniper, century plants, and…discarded antlers. At the time, I felt great sorrow for the vast number of deer that had seemingly lost their lives to the beautiful but rugged terrain.

Now, with Master Naturalist training under my belt, I’ve come to better understand deer and their antlers. It turns out that bucks grow new antlers each year from knobby bones on their skulls. Following a fairly predictable calendar, these “buttons” grow to three inches by mid-May and are covered in velvety skin. The antlers reach eight inches in mid-June and begin to branch. By July, the antlers near full growth and are still covered in velvet. The antlers’ blood vessels begin to dry up in August. At this time, they become bone-hard, and the velvet shrinks and peels. The antlers themselves are shed in the winter months, when bucks no longer need to fight other bucks for territory and does.

With this knowledge in hand, I no longer have to feel creepy about the antlers that I smuggled back from Arizona in my carry-on luggage and that have languished in my basement for many years. Just what I had originally intended for the antlers remains a mystery. Hat rack? Chandelier? Marshmallow toaster? Perhaps a clue to their eventual fate lay all along in my early days as a nanny: nearly twenty years later, the antlers have come to rest in the eager hands of the children I teach at the Arboretum.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator

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