yearling buck looking at the rising sun in the woods

“She’s pretty so she doesn’t have to be smart.”

This was a tongue-in-cheek text I received from a friend about her cat. I cannot speak to the intellect of this particular feline. However, I (like the sender) feel this statement and its sad commentary on our current society. The standards are different for men and women (and maybe cats), but we can all cite examples – in the media and in our own lives. The kicker is we apply this to other species as well!

Exhibit A – The low status of does assigned by many hunters because they don’t grow antlers. In the deer world, you only rate if bone grows out of your forehead. My annoyance with this knows no bounds and can been seen in many a blog post.

But bucks are not immune to these ridiculous human-imposed beauty standards either.

Exhibit B – The bigger the antlers, the “better” the buck. No matter the circumstance. Again, my feelings about antlers have been made quite clear through the years. I am not alone here either. A colleague once published an article in a scientific journal titled “The Antler Religion.” I do recognize how hard it is to growth them. Not as hard as lactation but still I get a little perturbed with Judgy McJudgefaces out there and their eagerness to worship at the antler alter.

And yet here we are – mid-July. And followers of this sect are getting ready to present the annual Beauty and Status Awards for the 2022 buck population because the antler growing season is done

3 back at a scrape in June

Before you break out your score cards and declare the “Best Browtine” winner in your neck of the woods, consider the many mishaps that can befall a nominee. Age, nutrition, and genetics (in that order) are always the top categories. But what about injury? While I was researching big brains, I stumbled upon this article on trauma-induced malformed antler development

Major points are deducted from a nominee if their antlers are not symmetrical, e.g. spike on one side. The study found that the frequency of skull and/or pedicle trauma increased with age class. See a buck with funky antlers, he’s likely not a yearling. And the injury that caused the funk will probably get progressively worse in successive seasons due to aggravation of the original injury from doing the things that antlers are meant to do – fight with other bucks and rub trees. 

Of course, there are other “tragedies” that befall antlers such as hard antler breakage, velvet injury, or the dreaded hormone disruption. 

Testosterone plays a key role in antler development. Low levels in the spring and summer followed by peak levels in the breeding season. Testosterone levels during the rut in older bucks are higher than in younger bucks. Testosterone is also directly involved in aggressive behavior. Hmmmm – older bucks, higher testosterone, more aggression, more fighting, more potential for antler blemishes. 

Look in the mirror. I don’t know about you, but I see wrinkles and age spots. Evidence of a life lived. So the next time you spy a buck with lack luster head gear, marvel at his persistence; appreciate his resourcefulness; value his uniqueness.

He may not be “pretty” but I bet he’s damn smart!

-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PA Game Commission

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