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Antler Coloration: Chocolate or Vanilla?

Back To "Ask The Biologist?"QUESTION: I recently read a story where a hunter chose to shoot a thick, dark 10-pointer over a tall, chalky, white 8-pointer and it got me thinking. I have heard that sunlight has an effect on antler color, and know that as they get older, bucks tend to hide deep and travel more at night.

I know that depending on where you are, this doesn't necessarily make a difference, but do darker colored antlers mean an older deer?  Also, what is actual reason for the variances in antler color? --Mike O. of Cheltenham, PA

ANSWER: Theories abound on how antlers get their individual coloration, though none has yet been proven conclusively.

Antler Coloration: Chocolate or Vanilla?Some have suggested it's a result of the type of trees that are rubbed and how the sap reacts with dried blood.  However, wildlife Bob Zaiglin has observed hundreds of bucks confined in breeding facilities containing only mesquite trees; and their antler colors varied from light to dark.

Others have suggested relative exposure to sunlight as a factor. It may be purely coincidence, but this theory gains some credibility based on the fact that bucks from densely forested areas tend to have darker antlers than those in more open habitat. For example, bucks from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Maine and Quebec's Anticosti Island - where the habitat is dominated by softwoods - are famous for their dark "chocolate" color, while those from more open areas of Midwestern and Western states are often lighter.

However, this theory loses credibility when you note that some bucks from all these areas exhibit a range of rack tones.

Noted whitetail photographer, Charlie Alsheimer, favors the genetic theory. He bases that on decades of observing and photographing captive whitetails that rub the same tree species but have different colored racks.

Yet another theory suggests that darker racks are more common in older deer because they require more blood and chloroplasts, which react with sap, and could result in darker color.

My personal observation - and it's nothing more than that - from hunting deer across their geographic range, is that older deer do tend to have darker racks. I've hunted numerous managed-properties where hunters are encouraged to shoot only mature bucks. When describing a buck I saw, one of the first questions the outfitter or manager asks is, "what color was his rack?"

The best answer I can offer is that some or all of the above likely contribute in some way, at some time to the coloration of an individual deer's rack.

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