Dog chewing on an antler

It’s my favorite hunting season and the only one I participate in. That’s right – it’s shed hunting season. While I disdain the attention antlers get while they are on the head of a deer, I thoroughly enjoy the game of hide and seek they play when they fall off. 

shed antler caught handing in a sapling

But some have questioned my guilty pleasure – aren’t shed antlers used by other critters? If so, should they be left on the ground where they belong?

I’ll start with the first question. The short answer is yes. Bones, be they femur, rib, or antler, are used by lots of animals if they are available. It’s called osteophagia – file that one away for your next game of Scrabble. An obvious example of this is caribou. Go back and read why Santa’s crew carry their antlers for their around-the-world trip. Sometimes they don’t even wait until they fall off. Some reindeer will gnaw the antlers right off their buddy’s head when they are still attached.

The list of critters that consume bones and/or antlers is long. 

A grizzly bear in Alaska ate a moose antler when it woke up in the spring. Giraffe love to chow down on bones. Osteophagia has been documented in Red deer, Axis deer, porcupines, squirrels – the list goes on and on. White-tailed deer eat sea turtle bones in Costa Rica! Even Pennsylvania elk have been caught sampling the remains of a fallen comrade. 

Cow elk chewing a femur bone
Credit: Joni Davis
Cow elk chewing a bone
Credit: Joni Davis

The consensus on why animals partake in this behavior is replacement or supplementation of essential minerals particularly calcium and phosphorus. 

White-tailed deer antlers are composed of 22-24% calcium, 10-11% phosphorus, and trace amounts of magnesium, sodium, sulfur, and other minerals. So they definitely fit the bill for those in search of calcium and phosphorus. Timing is also important. Females are jonesing for a fix during pregnancy and lactation. Males usually snack when growing things like antlers. 

It’s pretty clear that bones are an important part of the environment. 

But what about the semi-controversial practice of shed antler collecting?

Purists will argue that they should be left where they fall. In the case of reindeer, I would agree. Females retain their antlers in order to drop them in a place where they need them the most. The harsh arctic environment leaves little room for error for species that live there. 

However, I would argue that critters south of the arctic circle aren’t living that close to the edge. Compared to skeletal bones, antlers have the lowest mineral content. The skeletal remains of a deer or a raccoon or a turkey are going to have more calcium and phosphorus than an antler. And no one is picking up those bones in the woods. And yes, deer and raccoons and turkeys die every day. 

Maybe I’m justifying my utter delight in bringing home a freshly cast antler so I can prove I’m just as capable of finding one as my antler-sniffing spouse. I have enough guilt in my life. Let me have this. 

-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PA Game Commission

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