Mismatched Antlers


Why does this bull have very mismatched antlers? Is it an injury, genetics or old age?

Many years ago, I saw my first bull elk with a deformed antler at Mammoth inside Yellowstone National Park (see photo above). I was so excited by the thought of a unique image I nearly dropped my camera. Here was a mature bull with seven points on his left antler, but only a long vertical spike with short nub down by the ear for a right antler. The grass on the tips of his tines indicated that he definitely had an interest in breeding, but was he able to hold his own against bulls with conventional antlers?

Years later, a teenaged son harvested a bull on Bishop Mountain in Island Park. It too had a misshapen antler on the right side. This one sported more than a spike, but did not match the left side at all. He was with a small herd of cows, so at least in this case, his deficiency, if that is what it was, wasn’t serious enough to put him at a serious disadvantage.

Just this week, another son harvested yet another Island Park bull, this time in the Centennial Mountains. It had a normal left antler of six points. The right antler though, was a spike with an eight-inch tine at the bottom. My son was more excited by the uniqueness of this bull than he would have been had it been a matched set.

Why were these bulls handicapped with mis-matched antlers? There are three reasons why there might be a deformed antler: genetics, injury, or age.

On all three bulls, the right pedicle, or the point of antler growth was misplaced. Normally, it is oriented on top of the skull with the growth point upward. On these elk, the pedicle on the spike antler was off to the side, not on top although the antler still grew upward. It is possible that all three suffered an injury to the skull. The skull healed, but with the pedicle in a different orientation. Given the immense power generated when two bulls fight for the right to breed, it would not be hard to imagine battles so intense that an antler snaps and in the process damages a skull plate and displacing the pedicle.

Another potential for injury-related antler change seems strange, but has been documented in deer. If the animal sustains an injury to a hip, say in battle or perhaps an encounter with a car, the antler on the opposite side may become deformed. That doesn’t explain the deformed pedicle in all three of these cases though.

Another possibility, and a plausible one since all three of these bulls lived within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is genetics. Perhaps these bulls share a gene and were born this way. This trait is then transferable to offspring. If genetic, then either it isn’t the handicap I imagine it to be or they learn to compensate somehow when fighting in order to still breed and pass on the gene.

The final reason is age, specifically bulls past their prime. It is common for older bulls to have smaller or even deformed antlers as they get older. We have seen bulls with four-foot-long spikes, for instance. These might be old bulls that just can’t produce competitive antlers anymore. Very old bulls may have antlers that are more like melons or clubs than branching antlers. However, the two harvested bulls were not exceptionally old as indicated by tooth wear. Also, I would expect both antlers to react to age roughly equally, not be whacked out on one side and totally normal on the other. The lopsided bull in the photo appears to be in his prime as well, so I am ruling this one out.

I can hardly wait to examine the skull of this latest bull, once it has been cleaned by the taxidermist. I will be looking for significant head trauma that healed, but left the pedicle in a new position, as that is my best guess as to why these animals have unusual headgear.

If injury is the cause of these deformations, I can’t even imagine the headaches these animals endured during the long process of healing. It is a testament as to just how tough you have to be to live in the woods.

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 Nature-track.com!

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