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You Can't Stockpile Deer

Back To "Ask The Biologist?"Questions about buck’s injury lead to bigger management picture

QUESTION: Bob, I recently shot a large buck that had an unusual puffy swelling between its antlers. The skin was very loose in this area of about two inches. Was this from fighting, or possibly a virus?  There were other signs it had been in some serious fights. - Stan C.

You Can’t Stockpile Deer

ANSWER: I can’t say definitively without more information, but I have a strong suspicion what you encountered was a skull abscess. 

This type of injury is actually not all uncommon in deer, particularly bucks, and especially during the rut. In fact, one study suggested this disease accounts for slightly less than 10 percent of the natural mortality for yearling and adult male white-tailed deer in the southeastern region.

It is caused not by a virus, but by bacteria that naturally inhabit the skin of a deer, but can enter a deer’s brain through lesions, skin abrasions or other injuries. 

Among the most common type of injury is damage to the antler pedicel (where the antler attaches to the skull) or the sutures (ragged lines where the different bones of the skull are fused together).  The greatest mortality occurs in the fall and winter and it doesn’t take a scientist to figure out the cause.

In the process of sorting out dominance and determining who gets to breed a receptive doe, bucks will pose, intimidate, threaten and spar among each other. When all else fails, their only recourse is combat. 

All-out fighting is usually a last resort because it poses a health risk to both victor and vanquished, and can exert tremendous force on the antlers and skull, occasionally resulting in injury to the pedicel and/or skull. 

This provides an opportunity for bacteria to enter the site of an injury. A buck thus injured rarely, but occasionally recovers. More often, they succumb to their injuries and die an ugly death.

As an aside, the incidence of brain abscesses is higher in areas with higher proportions of mature bucks. That’s one of the reasons biologists say, “You can’t stockpile deer.” 

It’s fine to try and protect as many young deer as possible and allow them to reach older age classes. But if you don’t remove enough mature bucks, they’ll take care of it themselves by removing each other.

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