Antler abnormalities are common in the whitetail world, and definitely a topic of interest to deer hunters. But what causes abnormal antler growth? Misshapen antlers can be caused or influenced by an antler injury, a body injury, genetics or simply the animal’s age. Many of us have grown up with rumors about abnormal antler growth, such as “That weird rack must mean bad genes — better take him out of the herd,” and “A buck hit by a car on his right side will have a messed up left antler the next year.” Are these true? Yes and no, to an extent. Read on.
Antlers can sustain injuries to the pedicle (base), main beam or tines (points). Pedicle injuries are often the result of a blow to the head and will affect the entire antler. Pedicle injuries cause the base and most or the entire antler to look deformed, while the opposite antler grows normally and shows no sign of an injury. Severe pedicle injuries may even stop antler growth completely. Main beam injuries occur during the growing season (obviously), and the degree of abnormality is determined by the timing and location of the injury. Antlers with normal bases but deformed tines, growth patterns or shapes are caused by injuries during early growth. Injuries occurring later in growth affect less of the antler’s “normal” shape unless the injury is low on the main beam. Injuries to main beams and tines are expressed only during the current year. The buck’s next set of antlers typically don’t show signs of the injury.
Body injuries caused by disease, vehicles, bullets, arrows, snakebite and other unfortunate events can cause abnormal antler growth. Injuries to a front limb (foot, leg, shoulder) may affect the antler on the injured side, opposite side or both sides, but the antler on the injured side is typically most affected. Hind-limb injuries usually affect the opposite antler. Body injuries can affect antler growth on both sides and may cause the antlers to stop growing entirely. Depending on the location and severity of the injury, the abnormality may occur on just the current set of antlers or it may be carried throughout life. For example, a buck that sustains minor injuries to his right rear leg from a vehicle collision may have an abnormal left antler for one season. Another buck that loses his right rear foot to a bullet may have an abnormal left antler for the rest of his life.
Genetics and animal age can also be responsible for abnormalities. We have all seen pictures of bucks with palmated antlers and points going in every direction. Several years ago, pictures of Goliath (a captive buck from Pennsylvania) were distributed via e-mail to millions of computers around the world. His abnormal antlers were caused by genetics and age, not by an injury. A buck’s age plays a large role in the expression of non-injury deformities. Bucks that are not nutritionally limited (and bucks from overpopulated herds often are) should increase the size of their antlers yearly until they reach maturity at about 5 to 7 years of age. This is why drop tines and sticker points are much more common on older bucks.
Many abnormalities we see in the field are temporary in nature. An abnormal antler should not be an excuse to harvest a young buck, particularly if the abnormality is injury related. If given the chance to grow another set of antlers, most bucks revert to their pre-injured form and grow a larger set in response to their advanced age. I know of one 3 ½-year-old buck that injured his antlers early in growth and ended with six points on two deformed antlers. He scored far less than 100 Boone and Crockett points (probably closer to 50 B&C). The next year, he was a symmetrical 10-pointer with a 21-inch inside spread and scored 145 B&C. It’s amazing the difference a year can make.