Antler Development

It has been fun and educational to watch antlers develop from a small basket to large, even-pointed 6x6 antlers on this bull elk.

In the first photo I saw of him, his antlers were small and matched his coat in color, which was the rich brown of a summertime bull elk. Over the course of the last month or so, my trail camera has repeatedly caught images of him and several friends. Most of the images were during the dark hours and quality suffers, but they have been a good documentary of the growth of the antlers of this bull. With still perhaps a month of development to go, he is looking like a fine specimen with long beamed antlers and tines, likely significantly larger than last year’s pair which he probably shed around April this year.

Antlers are unique to the deer, or Cervidae, family of animals, including, deer (many types), elk, moose and caribou. They are also unique in that they don’t participate in the support functions of the skeletal system, provide attachment for muscles, protect internal organs or move with other bones. They grow all summer for the single purpose of intraspecific combat for the right to breed—a series of contests that lasts about two months.

Antlers grow from protuberances on the frontal bones of the skull in males (there are some exceptions to that male thing). These bumps are called pedicels. That isn’t news, but what might be surprising is that the antler cross-section, or width, does not exceed that of the pedicel but always matches it. So, the pedicel grows wider as the bull or buck ages in order for the animal to achieve larger antlers.

Growing antlers are mostly water. The dry matter of a growing antler is 80 percent protein. As the antler cures or dries, this is reversed. A hard antler will have a very low water content.

As the antlers grow, they are covered in velvet, a soft protective growth that feels, well, like velvet. The tips of the tines are rounded and while not in final form, are still quite handsome. Antler growth is partly driven by genetics, but requires excellent nutrition as well to reach full potential. Through the velvet and internal blood vessels, the growing antler is supplied with the nutrients required to grow up to an inch a day. At that rate, this bad boy will be quite a bull come breeding season.

Antlers begin to grow in response to hormones and day length. As the days grow longer, melatonin production is suppressed, allowing hormones, principally testosterone, to increase. The hormones stimulate the growth cells, the pedicel begins to swell and velvet skin develops atop the pedicel.

Antler growth occurs at the tips of the antlers. The bases are the oldest material and are the first to harden as the process of growth draws to a close. The outside of the antler is also harder than the inside, but until the antler hardens completely the antlers are more like cartilage and are easily damaged.

Researching the actual growth processes of antlers felt like wandering in another world. It was full of unfamiliar terms and complicated descriptions. One take away point however, is that the complex process of antler growth is still not fully understood. For instance, how antlers branch uniformly on both sides or look similar from year to year remains a puzzlement. The initiation of velvet skin is also poorly understood.

Harvesting velvet antlers from captive animals is a big business, particularly in New Zealand. The antlers are dried and processed into a number of dietary supplements reported to aid just about every human ailment. However, reported that there are no verified significant human trials vindicating any of these claims.

I am excited to see just what this bull looks like at the great reveal when he rubs off the velvet. I hope he keeps posing for my trail camera.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho