Now that spring has officially arrived, the two types of deer in our area — California Mule Deer and American Elk — have begun to grow their new antlers. Only the males produce antlers and they grow so amazingly fast, they are considered to be the fastest growing bone in the natural world.
These specialized bone structures usually begin to grow in March for Elk, and a little later for Mule Deer. They are largely finished growing by midsummer. In Elk, the antlers can reach a length of four feet and weigh as much as 40 pounds. California Mule Deer antlers, of course, are nowhere near that large.
The growth and retention of antlers is largely testosterone driven. While still growing, antlers are covered with a fuzzy, highly vascularized skin called velvet. Initially the velvet is thick, soft and spongy, but it gets thinner and drier as the antlers grow.
When the antlers reach their full size, they begin to calcify and become hard. At this point, the velvet is no longer needed and it both falls off on its own and is rubbed off by the males as they polish their antlers on trees.
The main purpose for antlers is to attract females. Having forked antlers tends to prevent serious injury, since the antlers on two jousting buck deer or bull elk interlock, reducing the chances of either combatant getting stabbed by the antler points. When deer or elk grapple to determine dominance, it really is more of a pushing contest to see which male is stronger, like sumo wrestling rather than a sword fight with the sharp antlers.
After the mating season (rut) is over, the testosterone levels in males begins to drop. When it goes low enough, the antlers are naturally shed.
Antlers that are still in the velvet stage have long been used in traditional medicine as a dietary supplement, but like rhino horn, tiger parts, etc., there is no indication of its efficacy. There was a review published in 2012 that summarized results from seven clinical trials, including three that assessed sports performance, and the conclusion was that "Claims that velvet antler supplements have beneficial effects for any human condition are not currently supported by sound clinical data from human trials."
This lack of evidence has not stopped people from trying supplements made from velvet antler. The antlers, which are still somewhat spongy and haven’t calcified yet, are typically cut off living deer and then sliced thin or powdered.
One problem is that they contain methytestosterone and a substance called IGF-1, both of which can cause athletes to fail a drug test, which happened to pro golfer Vijay Singh in 2013, when he was using velvet antler spray because someone told him it would help him recover from an injury. An NFL player successfully sued a velvet antler supplement company for $5.4 million when he failed a drug test in 2011 by testing positive for methyltestosterone.
My friend Toshimi Kristof in Bear Valley Springs happened to get some photos recently of four large bull elk whose antlers were just coming in. The velvety stubs look strange, but not for long — since they can grow an inch per day, it will only be a matter of weeks until they are recognizable as antlers. Like blooming wildflowers or baby birds, antlers in velvet are another sign that spring is here.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.