We are so accustomed to deer species shedding and re-growing their antlers (like this roe deer buck strolling past one of our cameras the other day) that we barely give this amazing physiological feat a second thought. Nutritionally speaking antlers are very “costly”, requiring a particularly rich diet which can be hard to come by, especially in early spring. This makes it an exciting season for studying trophic interactions. Especially our larger ungulates like moose and red deer often face something of a dilemma: Relative food intake decreases with an increase in body size (this is part of the reason why bigger ungulates can persist on poorer diets) but the need for minerals and proteins to develop antlers rises exponentially. This forces deer to select nutrient dense foods (concentrates) that are often protected by defensive secondary plant compounds which means that deer had to develop efficient detoxification mechanisms. In addition, fresh forage is still scarce during the early months of the year and we might therefore observe increased levels of competition over food resources within and between species. Apart from being linked to trophic interactions, antlers are also amazing in a completely different way: According to Price et al. (2005) deer are the only mammals which have retained the capacity to regenerate lost or damaged body parts (their antlers) that are replicates of the original and eventually become fully integrated into pre-existing tissues. Deciphering the molecular machine driving antler regeneration might eventually aid in the engineering of new human tissues and organs.
Price, J. S., S. Allen, C. Faucheux, T. Althnaian and J. G. Mount (2005). Deer antlers: a zoological curiosity or the key to understanding organ regeneration in mammals? Oxford, UK. 207: 603-618.