As this week’s “heat wave” proves, spring is not far out of reach. Just as Carleton students shed jackets and even long pants this time of year, the Arboretum’s male deer (white-tailed deer, or Odocoileus virginianus, if you want to get technical) shed their antlers. Bucks re-grow their antlers—their prime tool for attracting a mate—every year beginning in the spring, leaving the past year’s antlers, or “sheds,” out in the cold for curious Arb visitors to find, particularly in the months of January and February. Follow some fresh deer tracks in what remains of our once heavy snow cover and you may discover an antler shed. The number of points, as well as the length and width of a buck’s antler are all rough indicators of its age, though a healthy diet and genetics also play a part in an antler’s appearance.
How do discarded antlers work their way back into the ecosystem? Mature antlers are essentially dead bone structures, and thus make excellent sources of calcium for other Arb-dwellers. It is not uncommon, then, to find well-chewed sheds. Though this makes it difficult to find enough intact sheds for, say, an ambitious studio art project, or a wall trophy for that empty wall in one’s dorm room, such efficient natural recycling allows deer to shed their antlers annually without cluttering up the forest floor with last year’s growth.
While you take advantage of Minnesota’s balmy temperatures by venturing out into the Arb, remember that tracks in snow (or mud, at the current rate of melting), are not your only evidence for wildlife. Look for other physical signs—broken tree branches, remaining fur or feathers, or perhaps a pair of last year’s antlers, which some buck has discarded in hopes that his next pair will really attract the ladies. Here’s to hoping.
- Rae Wood '12, for the Cole Student Naturalists