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Aging Toothless Deer

Back To "Ask The Biologist?"QUESTION: I've just harvested a Pennsylvania buck that we have collected many trail cam photos of over the past four years. Oddly, we've had very few live sightings of it.

By the photos, we guessed it to be at least 6-years-old, but after finally harvesting it, and much to my surprise, the buck has no teeth at all!

Aging Toothless DeerEach year, its right antler had grown abnormally, and this year was no different. The buck's right antler had grown into a strange mushroom shape with a point on the top, and only four points on the other side!

It's obvious the buck had been declining a while. Since it has no teeth, how can we determine the age on this awesome old buck? - Michael S.

ANSWER: The most common and widely used method for aging deer is by tooth wear and replacement.

After deer reach 2 1/2, determining age is based largely on the amount of wear on the crests (cusps) and the relative thickness of enamel (white) and dentine (brown) visible on certain teeth.

A quick search of the web should bring you to sites with diagrams and descriptions on how to do it.

Bear in mind the system is fairly, but not entirely accurate. Variables like genetics, diet and soils can influence results. For example, teeth wear faster in areas with sandy soils, or where mineral licks occur.

If your buck has any teeth remaining with a measurable base, there's a method of aging that is even more reliable than jawbone charts. The method is called "cementum annuli."

Teeth grow rings, much like a tree. By taking a thinly sliced cross section of a tooth and looking at in under the microscope, you can count the rings. Unfortunately, this is a fairly expensive and labor-intensive process.

There's yet another method still in the development stage. While working at Mississippi State University's Deer Ecology and Management Lab, Jeremy Flinn developed a software program that can be used to age deer from trail camera photos. The software is not yet ready for public distribution, but in comparative tests has shown to be fairly accurate.

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