When 75-year-old amateur photographer Steve Lindberg set off into Michigan’s snow-covered woodland with his camera last weekend, he might have expected to spot some elegant white-tailed deer against the glistening background, but he certainly didn’t expect to see one crowned with three antlers.
“Five days before rifle season for Whitetail Deer and look who I get to see, along with his girlfriend,” Lindberg wrote on Facebook. “A three antlered, nine or twelve point buck (depending if you want to count the two little tines on the right antler, and the small tine on the left antler). I don't recall ever seeing a three antlered deer before.”
Lindberg told the Detroit Free Press that he watched the unusual stag hanging out with a small doe for a few hours, but the next day he had disappeared.
Antlers, not to be confused with horns, are made of bone and are grown and cast (shed) each year. As they emerge, they are covered in a fuzzy skin known as velvet. When antlers are fully grown, the stag removes the velvet by rubbing its antlers against trees and bushes. If you ever spot a stag whose antlers are a bit of a bloody mess, he’s probably just been removing his velvet. Antlers are only found in members of the deer family and are generally a male accessory, although female reindeer grow antlers too.
So why might Lindberg’s white-tailed stag have developed an extra antler this year? Professor Tim Clutton-Brock, director of research at the University of Cambridge’s Large Animal Research Group, told IFLScience that it’s likely either “a natural deformation to the pedicle (the lump the antler grows from)” or the result of a past wound, both of which “can cause antlers to grow crookedly”. It seems a malformation of one of the antlers has caused it to split in two.
Antlers have two primary functions for stags – impressing the ladies and fighting rival males. Males with the biggest, most impressive antlers are more attractive to females as growing antlers is costly, so the healthiest, strongest males will be adorned with the greatest crowns. Stags will also use their antlers to fight one another for access to fertile females.
The largest deer to ever live, the 2-meter-tall (7-foot) Irish elk, had ridiculously vast antlers, measuring 3.6 meters (12 feet) across. It is thought this may be an example of extreme sexual selection – females would only breed with the males with the biggest antlers, so through the generations they became more and more impressive. The species died out in Ireland about 11,000 years ago.
In terms of how the Michigan stag’s three antlers might impact his ability to attract females and fight off rivals, Professor Clutton-Brock said it depends on their strength. If the extra protrusion is sturdy and strong, it could make the stag a better fighter. However, if it is weak, it could hinder him when fighting. Still, the fact that Lindberg spotted the stag with a doe suggests he’s perhaps not doing too badly.