It seems each and every year we hear about and glimpse photos of what most assume are strange-looking bucks. Here’s the real scoop on these whitetail oddities.
October 2, 2020 will be a day Michael LaLonde will never forget. Eager to take a doe for the freezer, the 38-year-old northern Ohio resident grabbed his crossbow and headed to nearby Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge for an afternoon hunt. Little did he know how unique the hunt would be.
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LaLonde first observed what would turn out to be a very unique whitetail last November, while hunting the same area of the refuge. “When I first saw this deer, I could see its crazy antlers, which were covered in white velvet,” he noted. “But, I had already taken a buck, so I couldn’t shoot it because we only get one buck tag, and I had already filled mine.” That was 2019, and the memory had just about faded away until he looked up and saw the same deer heading in his direction, almost a full year later. “I couldn’t believe it; I knew immediately it was the same deer.” When the deer presented a shot at 25 yards, LaLonde placed a bolt in the base of the deer’s neck and the hunt ended quickly and humanely.Thinking he had just taken a unique velvet-antlered buck, Michael was more than a little surprised to find that his prized buck was actually a doe. In fact, it is one of the largest antlered does ever recorded. Why did this doe produce abnormal, velvet-clad antlers? Why do some bucks grow similar, velvet-covered nontypical racks? Even more strange are deer that are part buck and part doe. This is where the real story of whitetail freaks begins. Let’s take a look at these conditions and what we know—and don’t know—about each.Antlered Does. A good starting point is learning why all female deer don’t grow antlers. In simple terms, the energetic demands of antler growth aren’t worth the investment over the long haul. Unlike bucks, which use antlers for defense and mate attraction, there is little benefit to does, except possibly for defending themselves and their fawning territories during late pregnancy. This helps explain why many female caribou grow antlers. Those that do grow antlers retain them until their calves are born in the spring, unlike male caribou that lose their antlers after the breeding season in winter. The difference here is that caribou are a herding species that live and give birth in open tundra environments. In contrast, most North American deer species occupy much-denser habitats, with abundant fawning and escape cover.
If female deer don’t need antlers, why do some grow them? This is where the science is somewhat lacking. While research has clearly established a link between the male hormone testosterone and antler growth, the conditions that cause abnormally high testosterone levels in female deer remain unclear. The most likely explanations include genetics, testosterone production by the adrenal glands, or a condition called freemartinism.Genetics could certainly be a cause, as this has been documented in female caribou. Female calves from antlered mothers are significantly more likely to produce antlers themselves at maturity, than those from mothers without antlers. Testosterone production by the adrenal glands is another potential explanation, which also has been documented in caribou. Normally, the primary source of testosterone is the testes. These findings in caribou suggests a possible interaction between genetics and abnormal production of testosterone by the adrenal glands. Finally, a well-documented phenomenon in livestock known as freemartinism, is another potential cause. This situation occurs when the placentas of twin male and female calves fuse during pregnancy, resulting in the “masculinizing” of the female calf by her twin brother. This could explain how some does can produce enough testosterone to grow antlers. While this condition has not been documented in deer, it is noteworthy that antlered does are much more common in deer species that produce twin fawns—such as white-tailed deer and mule deer—while extremely rare in elk and moose.
While there are few absolutes in the whitetail world, there are some commonalities when it comes to antlered does. First, most are fertile, breeding and raising fawns normally. In LaLonde’s case, two years of trail camera photos of his deer with fawns at foot suggest she was reproductively fertile. Second, the vast majority of true antlered does will have velvet antlers. Commonly, their antlers will be small, often only spikes. It is unclear if their small antlers are due to age, nutrition or some other factor. Regardless, it is exceedingly rare for a doe to produce antlers the size of LaLonde’s, which scored a whopping 191 under Buckmasters’ BTR scoring system, placing it number two all-time under this program. Third, true antlered does retain their velvet antlers from year to year, rather than shedding them like normal bucks. Each year they add some new growth to their existing antlers, though anecdotally the amount appears to vary considerably from negligible to substantial.Cactus Bucks. The term “cactus buck” refers to the cactus-like appearance of a buck’s antlers that remain in velvet from year to year, while adding new growth. Bucks that remain in velvet during the hunting season share a common underlying condition—low testosterone levels. However, there are numerous potential causes. Some common genetic or early developmental causes include hypoplasia (underdevelopment of the testes), hypogonadism (low testosterone production by the testes), and atrophy (death of the testes). Other causes that can occur later in life include injury, infection, or tumors. Recently a connection has been established between epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) virus infection and cactus antlers. The EHD virus can produce lesions in the testicular tissue, causing vascular damage and hardening of the testes. This interferes with normal testosterone production, resulting in levels capable of growing antlers, but not high enough to complete the final stages of antler mineralization and velvet shedding.
Since both antlered does and cactus bucks retain their antlers from year to year, abnormal and even grotesque antlers can result. This is because antler velvet is living tissue and the antlers beneath are brittle, which can result in the death of some velvet and antler breakage, especially in northern environments. Due to low testosterone levels, these bucks are neither interested in breeding nor are they fertile. They are simply “it” deer—likely with an identity crisis! Given the myriad of potential causes, it’s extremely difficult to determine the reason for a buck’s cactus antlers without close examination after death. However, it’s a safe bet that once a velvet buck, always a velvet buck. So, you can make the call if and at what age you want to harvest him, as it makes no difference genetically because they cannot reproduce.
Hermaphrodites. Now that I’ve explained the difference between antlered does and cactus bucks, it’s time to tackle an animal that splits the difference, possessing both male and female reproductive organs. Known as hermaphrodites, these strange deer often get mistaken for antlered does. In such cases, the animal appears outwardly female but possesses rudimentary internal male testes that often are overlooked or missed during the gutting process. In fact, the majority of so-called antlered does are actually hermaphrodites, especially those with normally shaped, hardened antlers. This would be further supported if the animal showed no signs of past reproduction, as hermaphrodites are generally infertile.
This stresses the need to gather all the facts before jumping to conclusions as to whether a deer is an antlered doe or a hermaphrodite. Besides the antler characteristics mentioned above, the presence of fawns at foot, or evidence of lactation (an indication of recent fawn birth) would be suggestive of a true antlered doe. While no attempt was made to locate internal testes in LaLonde’s deer, all evidence, including two years of trail camera photos of the deer with fawns, suggests it was a true antlered doe—and a giant one at that! Given that she was estimated to be 6.5 years of age, this helps explain her abnormally large antlers, because she likely never lost her first set of antlers and kept adding new growth each year.
So, the next time you see or read about a deer killed during the hunting season with velvet-covered antlers, you will be armed with the latest Whitetail Science to help determine which of these whitetail freaks is most likely at hand. Regardless, someone will have a good story to tell!