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Why Reindeer And Their Cousins Are Total Boneheads | Deep Look

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What if you had to grow 20 pounds of bone on your forehead each year just to find a mate? In a bloody, itchy process, males of the deer family grow a new set of antlers every year, use them to fend off the competition, and lose their impressive crowns when breeding season ends.

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Antlers are bones that grow right out of an animal’s head. It all starts with little knobs called pedicles. Reindeer, elk, and their relatives in the cervid family, like moose and deer, are born with them. But in most species pedicles only sprout antlers in males, because antlers require testosterone.

The little antlers of a young tule elk, or a reindeer, are called spikes. Every year, a male grows a slightly larger set of antlers, until he becomes a “senior” and the antlers start to shrink.

While it’s growing, the bone is hidden by a fuzzy layer of skin and fur called velvet that carries blood rich in calcium and phosphorous to build up the bone inside.

When the antlers get hard, the blood stops flowing and the velvet cracks. It gets itchy and males scratch like crazy to get it off. From underneath emerges a clean, smooth antler.

Males use their antlers during the mating season as a warning to other males to stay away from females, or to woo the females. When their warnings aren’t heeded, they use them to fight the competition.

Once the mating season is over and the male no longer needs its antlers, the testosterone in its body drops and the antlers fall off. A new set starts growing almost right away.

--- What are antlers made of?

Antlers are made of bone.

--- What is antler velvet?

Velvet is the skin that covers a developing antler.

--- What animals have antlers?

Male members of the cervid, or deer, family grow antlers. The only species of deer in which females also grow antlers are reindeer.

--- Are antlers horns?

No. Horns, which are made of keratin (the same material our nails are made from), stay on an animal its entire life. Antlers fall off and grow back again each year.

---+ Read an article on KQED Science about how neuroscientists are investigating the potential of the nerves in antler velvet to return mobility to damaged human limbs, and perhaps one day even help paralyzed people:

https://ww2.kqed.org/science/2016/12/06/rudolphs-antlers-could-help-restore-mobility-in-injured-humans/

---+ For more information on tule elk

https://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/nature/tule_elk.htm

---+ More Great Deep Look episodes:

The Sex Lives of Christmas Trees
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEji9I4Tcjo

Watch These Frustrated Squirrels Go Nuts!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUjQtJGaSpk

This Mushroom Starts Killing You Before You Even Realize It
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bl9aCH2QaQY

---+ See some great videos and documentaries from PBS Digital Studios!

The REAL Rudolph Has Bloody Antlers and Super Vision - Gross Science
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gB6ND8nXgjA

Global Weirding with Katharine Hayhoe: Texans don't care about climate change, right?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_r_6D2LXVs&list=PL1mtdjDVOoOqJzeaJAV15Tq0tZ1vKj7ZV&index=25

It’s Okay To Be Smart: Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Concussions?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqBxbMWd8O0

---+ Follow KQED Science:

KQED Science: http://www.kqed.org/science
Tumblr: http://kqedscience.tumblr.com
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/kqedscience

---+ About KQED

KQED, an NPR and PBS affiliate in San Francisco, CA, serves Northern California and beyond with a public-supported alternative to commercial TV, Radio and web media.

Funding for Deep Look is provided in part by PBS Digital Studios and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Deep Look is a project of KQED Science, which is also supported by HopeLab, the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation, the Vadasz Family Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Smart Family Foundation and the members of KQED.

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