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This Roosevelt elk carries a beautiful set of heavy antlers. Antlers—including the ones on this elk—are grown and lost by most species of male deer every year.
An adult male elk, or bull, begins to grow antlers in spring. Antlers are a part of a bull's skull. Each antler grows from a point in the skull called a pedicle. Antlers emerge as cartilage, with bone replacing the cartilage from the pedicle up as the antler grows.
As antlers grow, they are covered with a layer of furry skin called velvet. Velvet is vascularized, meaning it is full of tiny blood vessels carrying oxygen and other nutrients to antler tips, allowing them to grow about 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) every day.
By late summer or early autumn, the velvet falls off, leaving the elk with a 18-kilogram (40-pound) pair of solid-bone antlers. This bone stage means that the antlers have “died,” and no longer receive nutrients.
Elk antlers have several purposes, most related to mating. Every fall, for instance, bulls use their antlers to spar over the right to mate with female elk (called cows).
Antlers themselves are also displays of a bull's health and abilities. Antlers require an enormous amount of energy to grow. A healthy set of antlers may indicate that the bull has a strong metabolism, able to sustain such an energy-hungry display. Antlers may also indicate that the bull is able to find and consume food.
Eventually, antlers themselves fall off. Osteoclasts, the same type of bone cells responsible for turning antler cartilage into bone in the first place, reabsorb some boney tissue near the pedicle. The antlers fall off from their base on the animal's skull.
Three months later, the process starts again.
- The Roosevelt elk is the largest of the four elk species in North America—adults can measure 3 meters (10 feet) from head to tail and have a shoulder height of 1.5 meters (5 feet).
- Antlers are the fastest-growing bone in any mammal.
- Reindeer are the only species where females regularly grow antlers. They don't use their antlers for sparring, however. Female reindeer use their antlers to clear away snow piled on top of the mosses and lichen that are their main winter food source.
- A rack's points are sometimes called tines.
- The antlers of tropical and equatorial species of deer can last for many years—sometimes, the animal's whole life.
to soak up.
horn-like bony outgrowth on deer and related animals.
tubes through which blood circulates.
structure composing the skeleton of vertebrate animals.
strong, flexible connective tissue found in many animals.
to save or use wisely.
mammal whose male members have antlers.
large species of deer native to North America. Also called American elk and wapiti.
capacity to do work.
to display or show.
to reproduce or breed.
chemical changes in living cells by which energy is provided for vital processes.
substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.
specialized bone cell that absorbs bone, allowing for the deposition of new bone and maintenance of bone strength.
attachment point for antlers in deer.
full set of antlers.
bones of the head, supporting the face and protecting the brain and upper spinal cord.
to engage in a fight or dispute.
to develop or supply a tissue with blood vessels.
soft, furry covering of growing antlers.
tool to hurt or combat an opponent.