No, all deer do not have antlers. The biggest determiner of whether an individual deer has antlers is its sex. For the vast majority of deer species, adult males grow antlers, but females and juveniles do not.
There are some exceptions to this rule. The reindeer, or caribou, is the most notable. In this species, the females, or cows, also grow antlers. Additionally, there’s one species that doesn’t grow antlers at all. Whether you’re a hunter, nature lover, or just curious about deer biology, diving deeper into these questions is both interesting and useful.
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What Deer Species Have Antlers?
Deer are a family of hoofed mammals with the scientific name of Cervidae. Antlers are one of their defining features, and the males, called bucks or bulls, of almost all the species in the family grow them.
There are 53 living species in the deer family living on every continent except Antarctica and Australia, so I won’t list them all. However, these are the most well-known and frequently hunted species, all of which grow antlers to some degree:
- Whitetail deer
- Mule deer
- Elk or wapiti
- European red deer
- Reindeer or caribou (notable because the females also grow antlers)
In fact, of those 53 species, only one doesn’t grow antlers, neither the males nor the females. It’s called the water deer and lives in China and Korea. Instead of antlers, the males grow tusks, leading to its nickname of “vampire deer.”
Do Female Deer Have Antlers?
In 52 of the 53 species of deer, the females, known as does or cows, do not grow antlers. There is, however, one exception: the reindeer, or caribou. Reindeer antlers are some of the biggest in the deer family, and reindeer cows also grow antlers, though they’re a bit smaller than a bull’s antlers.
What’s interesting is that while both male and female reindeer grow and shed antlers like other species of deer, their cycles are different. Reindeer bulls grow their antlers starting in February leading up to the mating season, or rut, which begins at the end of September and lasts through October. The cows start growing their antlers in May. Then the bulls shed their antlers soon after at the beginning of November, and the cows keep their antlers all through the winter until their calves are born in May.
Scientists do not believe this is a coincidence or that reindeer cows’ antlers are merely a vestigial accident of male antler growth. Rather, the cows grow their own antlers and keep them for a longer period for a specific reason.
Reindeer live in the extremely harsh tundra environments of northern Eurasia and North America, and unlike in other deer species where the males do most of the fighting, female reindeer must also fight for limited resources such as small patches of grass that poke through the snow in the winter. Reindeer cows who can fight off competition end up with more food and give birth to healthier offspring with better chances for survival.
The longevity of female reindeer antlers has also led to some lighthearted criticism of your favorite Christmas story. Even though Rudolph is a typical boy’s name, reindeer bulls don’t have antlers at Christmastime—only the cows do. In other words, Rudolph—and the rest of Santa’s team for that matter—must at least be castrated reindeer, if not females.
The Mythical Doe Antlers
Most experienced hunters have heard tall tales of their uncle’s best friend’s wife’s mechanic taking down a doe with 10-point antlers. These are usually exaggerated stories from someone who harvested a deer with antlers but without testicles.
The fact is, these rare cases are hardly ever actually does. Instead, they’re bucks whose testicles haven’t descended, have lost their testicles in an accident, or are “psuedo-hermaphroditic” with female reproductive organs on the outside but males ones on the inside.
Now, it is possible that a female deer for whatever reason has high testosterone levels and grows antlers. These don’t look anything like full male antlers, though. Rather, they’re more like skinny spikes and usually stay in velvet.
Do Male Deer Always Have Antlers?
Male deer of all deer species except the water deer grow antlers, but this doesn’t mean they always have them. In fact, deer are very peculiar among “horned” animals in that the males of most species have a cycle of growing and then shedding their antlers.
This cycle coincides with the deer’s mating season, whatever that may be, depending on the species. For example, whitetail deer mate in the middle of October through November. The bucks grow their antlers leading up to this period, starting in late March. They then usually shed them quickly after the rut in January, though younger males and deer in warmer climates may not shed their antlers until March.
Why Do Deer Grow Antlers?
Male deer from moose to whitetails grow antlers to fight. To fight over females, to be more specific.
For most species, the females go into heat, or estrus, at specific times of the year. This allows them to give birth when food starts to become plentiful, giving their offspring the best chance of survival. For whitetails, this is the end of the fall so that the does are pregnant through the winter and give birth to their fawns in the spring.
The males grow antlers so that when this time comes, they can fend off competitors and mate with the females. Dominant males mark out large territories and mate with all the females in the area. They then fight any males that try to encroach on their territory.
Since antlers are such a large part of a male’s dominance, they’re also attractive to the females. Mature bucks usually have bigger, more prominent antlers, which signals their health and strength.
Antler growth in male deer is a specific result of their testosterone hormone cycles. An increase in testosterone prompts the antlers to begin growing, maxing out during the rut, which is also what causes the males’ aggression and territoriality. After the rut, testosterone begins to drop, and the deer’s body sheds his antlers.
The cycle of testosterone is then regulated by sunlight, believe it or not. When the days begin getting shorter towards the end of the summer, a male deer’s body pumps up the testosterone in preparation for the rut. When the days start to get longer again after the winter solstice, the testosterone drops, and he sheds his antlers.
Hunting Antlered Deer
In most states and jurisdictions, states don’t specify tags as “male” and “female” or even “buck” and “doe.” Instead, they’re classified as “antlered” or “antlerless.” This is because of the rare situations described above where a female deer could have antlers. The result is that you should always follow the local regulations regarding antlers.
For example, many hunters might see a button buck and convince themselves it’s actually a doe with high testosterone and therefore a viable kill. However, for one thing, this is very unlikely since there’s probably some other reason you can’t see the deer’s male organs. More importantly, it’s most likely irrelevant since the law specifies antlers regardless of sex.