The Real Whitetail Freak

The Real Whitetail Freak

Antlers are a unique and fascinating phenomenon in the animal world. They are formed by complex mechanisms that are still not fully understood, and the complexity of antler growth is seen in the wide range of things that can go wrong. Injuries to growing antlers; injuries to the skull or pedicle; injuries to the skeleton, particularly the rear legs; all can produce unique malformations in the final product. Because hormones like testosterone play a significant role in the antler cycle, interruptions of hormone production can also result in bizarre formations. “Cryptorchidism” is a condition in male mammals in which one or both testes do not descend into the scrotum or form normally. The resulting lack or reduced level of testosterone prevents a normal antler cycle. Antlers grow in bizarre shapes, they do not harden, velvet remains year-round, and the antlers go on growing for the life of the deer without being shed.

Whether born that way or through suffering an injury, the bizarre buck shown here no doubt had a lack of or imbalance in hormones. Found in Montgomery County, Maryland, the skull belongs to Tinker Johnson, a taxidermist in Poolesville.

“A couple of guys I know had seen this deer alive one summer, once in July and then again in August,” said Tinker, “and when they saw it the second time, it was kind of acting stupid, which is understandable once you see the damage to the skull.”

The deer was not seen alive again, and a year later the skull was found. “The guy who found it was going to use it for target practice, but someone told him that I collected weird stuff like this,” said Tinker.

While the right antler had formed a perfect mushroom of cauliflower-like growth, the left antler had grown both outward and inward – back into the skull, down into the eyesocket (as seen in the photo), and into the space behind the eyesocket where the jawbone joins the skull.

“The left mandible [jawbone] would have been distended, and I doubt the deer could eat. It was probably starving,” said Tinker. “Probably two-thirds of the eyesocket is filled in by antler growth, and a third of the brain pan.”

Additionally, Tinker said the skull was cracked under the back of the left antler burr. That led Tinker to speculate the deer had been hit by a car but survived the collision, which cracked the skull and caused the left antler to begin growing down into the skull.

But there probably isn’t a need for a car collision in this story, says Dr. George Bubenik, retired professor of zoology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, who is an expert in antler growth. Dr. Bubenik said this type of growth is known as a “peruke,” from the French for wig.

“The rapidly growing peruke behaves like bone cancer and can erode the skull,” Dr. Bubenik said. “The bone of the skull becomes thin and is easily broken or punctured, often leading to a brain abscess and death by infection.”

In this case, he said, a minor injury to the growing antler could have caused a change in the direction of growth, forcing it downward into the skull.

“Perukes are found in most deer species, but the frequency differs from species to species,” he said. “The large cauliflower-like peruke is rather rare in white-tailed deer. It’s found more often in the European roe deer. White-tailed deer and mule deer more often grow so-called ‘cactus antlers’ instead.”

The cause of peruke antlers, Dr. Bubenik said, is a lack of testosterone, usually a result of injury to the testicles.  

“Peruke antlers usually do not mineralize, and they eventually lead to the death of the deer, either by blinding them or causing an infection,” he said.

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by Lindsay Thomas Jr.
on March 8, 2012