Getting to Know The Most Stunning Antlered Animals And How They Use Their Impressive Headgear
Antlers are a growth that occurs out of the skull of some animals, particularly members of the deer (Cervidae) family. Some animals may look like they have antlers but actually have horns, and these are not the same thing.
We take a look at what antlers are and what purpose they serve, how they are different from horns, as well as some of the amazing animals with antlers.
Why Do Animals Grow Antlers?
Antlers are unique to the Cervidae family, but can be very different in appearance across the cervids.
In the vast majority of cases, antlers are unique to the males of a species, and are considered to be one of the most exaggerated male secondary sexual traits in the animal kingdom.
They are used as a method of sexual selection and competition against other males for territory and breeding rights. This can be both physically, in acts of aggression and physical violence with competitors, and as objects of sexual attraction with females.
The size and ‘branching’ of antlers can be effected by diet, age and genetics, but those that have the largest antlers are more likely to succeed in both physical competition and in attracting a mate. This is the main purpose of antlers.
Antlers Vs Horns
Antlers grow every year, usually only by males and are shed, usually in late winter to be grown again starting in the spring. Horns on the other hand, are a permanent fixture for most animals that have them, and do not grow annually.
Another major difference between antlers and horns, is that antlers are a single structure, an extension of an animals skull comprised of bone, cartilage and tissue. They are covered in a furry substance called ‘velvet’ which contains nerves and blood vessels. They also grow faster than any other bone in the mammal world.
Horns on the other hand, are a two-part structure that contains a core of bone extending from the skull, and an exterior covering of keratin – the same material that scales, nails and hair are made from.
9 Animals With Antlers
Moose (North American Moose)
Moose (Alces alces) are the worlds largest deer species and are found in northern forests in North America, Europe, and Russia. In Europe and Russia the moose is known as an Elk, but this is not the same species as the North American Elk.
An adult moose stands around 6 – 7 feet (1.8 – 2.1 metres) at shoulder height. Male moose weigh 380 – 720 kilograms (850 – 1580 pounds) and females weigh 270 – 360 kilograms (600 – 800 pounds). Moose coloring varies from brown to a dusty black depending on the season and age of the animal.
Only male moose have antlers. The huge palmate antlers of a mature male moose measure between 1.2 metres (3.9 feet) and 1.5 metres (4.9 feet) wide. Though this does vary between the 6 various subspecies. The male moose will drop its antlers after the mating season and conserve energy for the winter. A young male moose however, may not shed their antlers for the winter, but retain them until the following spring.
For adults that do drop them, their antlers regrow in the spring, taking 3 to 5 months to fully develop. This makes them one of the fastest growing animal organs.
Elk (North American/Asian Elk)
Not to be confused with the Eurasian Elk, which is actually the same as the Moose mentioned above, the Elk (Cervus canadensis), is one of the largest deer species in the world. These large ungulates are also known as the ‘wapiti’, which is a native American word that means ‘light-colored deer’. These animals are native to North America including Alaska and Canada, as well as countries in Central and Eastern Asia.
In parts of Asia, antlers and their velvet are used in traditional medicines. Elks are hunted as a game species as their meat is leaner and higher in protein than beef or chicken. In North America, male elks are referred to as ‘bulls’ and females as ‘cows’, however, in Asia, males are called ‘stags’ and females are called ‘hinds’.
Mature male elks are around 25% larger than female elks. Male elks stand around 5 feet (1.5 metres) tall at the shoulder, measure 8 feet (2.5 metres) in length and weigh 320 kilograms (700 pounds). Female elks stand 4 – 4.5 feet (1.3 metres) at the shoulder, measure 6.5 feet (2 metres) from nose to tail and weigh an average of 225 kilograms (500 pounds).
Males elks have very large antlers which begin to grow in the spring and are shed every winter. Antlers can reach a length of 4 feet (1.2 metres) and weigh as much as 18 kilograms (40 pounds).
Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are found in the arctic tundra regions of North America, Asia, Northern Europe, Alaska and Greenland. In North America, reindeer are known as caribou when they are wild, and only called reindeer when they are domesticated. In Europe they are just called reindeer.
Caribous are large even toed mammals that measure 1.2 – 2.2 metres (4 – 7.25 feet) in length and stand 1.2 – 1.5 metres (4 – 5 foot at shoulder height. They can weigh between 60 – 318 kilograms (130 – 700 pounds). Their coats are short, thick and colored brown in summer turning grey in the winter.
Caribous are the only deer species where both male and female have antlers but some females have no antlers. Males have larger and more branched out antlers than females which can extend in size to over 1 metre (3.25 feet). Their antlers grow directly from their skulls and are covered with a thin skin called a ‘velvet’. During the ‘rutting’ season, the velvet on the males antlers disappear.
Male antlers fall off after the mating season has finished and females lose their antlers during the birthing season.
White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are native across the Americas. From Peru and the Bolivian Andes in South America, right up to Canada in the north. They have also been introduced to, but are not natives of the Caribbean Islands, particularly the Greater Antilles, many countries in Europe and New Zealand. They are very common in Texas, which is estimated to host over 5 million of these medium-sized deer.
There are between 26 and 40 described subspecies of the white-tailed deer across their range, all displaying slightly different features or characteristics. The taxonomy is in a state of flux as the legitimacy of some subspecies is debated.
In terms of size, these deer can vary notably between those that live in the north and those that live in the south. This is because of both Allan’s Rule and Bergmann’s Rule which describe the way in which populations of an animal change in size and weight depending on the climate in which they live.
On average however, the white-tailed deer that live in North America grow to around a weight of between 68-136 kg (150-300 lbs) for a buck and between 40-90 kg (88-198 lbs) for a doe. Much larger is occasionally recorded in the north, particularly around Minnesota and Ontario, whereas those that live around Florida are smaller than the average. Across the sexes, and the range, the average size is around 95-220 cm (37-87 in) long including the tail, and a height of 53-120 cm (21-47 in) at the shoulders.
It is usually only males that grow antlers, but they have also been recorded very rarely in females – about 1 in 10,000. They are grown annually and shed between December and February, once all the females have been bred. They start to grow again in the Spring. Usually a bucks antlers will branch out, but sometimes they don’t, remaining in ‘spikes’.
The development of their antlers, in terms of length and branching, is greatly determined by the quality of their diet (particularly the access to protein and calcium), their age, and also genetics.
Red deer (Cervus elaphus), commonly called ‘hart’ in the United Kingdom, are Britain’s largest native land mammal and, together with the roe deer, are the only native deer species found there. They are also native across much of Europe, Northern Africa and parts of Western Asia. They have also been introduced to, but are not natives of the Americas and Oceania.
The average male red deer has a body length of 210 centimetres, a shoulder height of 120 centimetres and weighs 295 kilograms (650 pounds). A female Red deer is slightly smaller and more lightly built, measuring 107 centimetres at shoulder height.
As with most species of deer, only the stags have antlers. They start to grow in the spring and are shed each year, usually by the end of winter. Red deer antlers can grow at a rate of around 2.5 cm a day, and when fully grown, measure around 71 cm (28 in) in length and around 1 kg (2.2 lb) in weight. In exceptional cases, large stags can grow antlers up to 115 cm (45 in) in length and 5 kg (11 lb) in weight, but this is well above the average.
The Sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) are a species native to the subcontinent of India, and Southeast Asia, including the Malay Peninsula, Thailand and South China. The samba is a species in decline, and is currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
These deer are usually between 102-160 cm (40-63 in) tall at the shoulders, across the sexes. In terms of weight, they average between 100-350 kg (220-770 lb) though are capable of reaching as heavy as 546 kg. They are the third largest deer species in the world, behind elk and moose.
They are sexual dimorphic, with males being larger than females and populations that live in the West also tend to be larger than the subspecies that live in the Eastern regions of their range. There are currently 7 recognised subspecies.
Antlers of the sambar deer are rugged, which is typical for the ‘Rusa’ genus. They grow large, up to 110 cm (43 in) long in fully grown adults, with forked tips rather than many branches. As with most deer, only the males grow antlers, and they are shed annually.
Fallow deer (Dama dama) are Native to Europe and are now found throughout much of England and parts of Wales and locally in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Fallow deer were probably first brought to England by the Romans, however, the main introduction was by the Normans in the eleventh century for hunting purposes.
Male fallow deer (bucks) have ‘palmate’ antlers – a wider and flatter spread with less distinct tines than the red deer, these are broad and shaped like a shovel. Female fallow deer (does) do not have antlers.
Bucks measure around 140 – 160 centimetres in length, 90 – 100 centimetres in shoulder height and weigh around 60 – 85 kilograms. Does measure 130 – 150 centimetres in length, have a shoulder height of 75 – 85 centimetres and weigh 30 – 50 kilograms.
The Chital, also known as the Axis Deer (Axis axis), and sometimes called the Spotted Deer, are native to the Indian Subcontinent. They have also been introduced as a non-native species to Australia and parts of the USA.
They are a small to medium sized deer, and males are generally larger than females. The males can reach an average of 90–100 cm (35–39 in) at the shoulders, while females can expect to reach 65–75 cm (26–30 in). Both sexes will reach around 1.7 m (5 ft 7 in) in total length. Mature stags can weigh up to 98–110 kg (216–243 lb), but the average is between 70–90 kg (150–200 lb). Females grow to weigh between 40–60 kg (88–132 lb).
The antlers of the Chital, like most species, only grow on the male, and can reach a length of around 1 meter. Each antler has three lines on it, and these deer are often mistaken with the fallow deer which is similar in both size and coat.
Pronghorns (Antilocapra americana) are common throughout North America, and are a bit of a cheat on this list, as they don’t actually have full antlers. They don’t have classical horns either though, but rather have a sort of hybrid between an antler and a horn.
While their ‘horn’ is a two part structure, with a bone interior and a keratin exterior, they shed their horn every year, like an antler. They are the only ‘horned’ animal to do this, as horns are usually permanent. It is a feature usually associated with antlers than horns, which makes them a bit of an anomaly. It also makes them an anomaly in the antelope family too!