Ask The Biologist

Size Matters

Size Matters

By Bob Humphrey

Biologists aren’t exactly sure what antlers are for, but bigger seems to be better.

QUESTION: It seems like it takes a lot of energy to grow a new set of antlers each year. Does a buck really gain anything from having bigger antlers? — Brian S.

ANSWER: A clue to the answer actually lies within your question. It does indeed take a lot of energy and resources to grow antlers. In fact, antlers are a bit of a luxury in that minerals go first to maintaining body function and then to skeletal growth. Only after all other physical requirements are met will surplus minerals be distributed to antler growth. Ergo, relative antler size is an indication of a buck’s health and vigor (and age).

Biologists have long speculated about the specific purpose of antlers. There must be one since natural selection quickly weeds out traits that do not promote survival. They certainly function as weapons in combat, and a recent study from  Mississippi State University suggests they may also aid in mate selection. Researchers found: “... female deer preferentially choose larger over smaller antlered males when intrasexual male competition was controlled. Females choosing to breed with larger antlered males may increase fitness because this moderately to highly heritable trait increases reproductive success in males.”

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Copyright 2018 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2017 by Buckmasters, Ltd