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Velvety Days of Summer

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Show Low, AZ
Photo courtesy of J Frost Photography, LLC.

The long warm days of summer provide the forest with much needed energy to grow rich food for the wildlife which call our forests home. New young aspens rocket skyward from the reaching roots of old trees, young turkeys in meadows feed vigorously amongst fleeing grasshoppers, and creatures from all walks of life do their best to exploit all the bounty the season is able to offer. Summer is a time for growth, and for certain species, a tremendous amount of energy is expended on the growth of elaborate displays of bone annually, which we refer to as antlers.  

 

Antlers are made of bone, no different than any other part of a skeleton. However, on an annual basis, antlers are lost and grown again. In an impressive feat of nature, elk and deer are able to re-grow several pounds of bone over the course of a single summer. For some larger elk known to inhabit our local forests, this may mean upwards of 30 to 40 pounds of bone growth in a single season.

 

During the warm month of July, all elk and deer are well into their antler growing phase of the year. Having lost last year’s antlers sometime in the late winter or early spring, they begin the growth of a new set in the spring. Starting out as little furry bumps on their head from the pedicle of the old antler, these new antlers’ growth is fueled by the nutritious feed that summer provides. Even still, the incredible energy demand for this growth requires elk to fully utilize the available resources.

 

Their antlers, covered by a soft fur covered skin, which is referred to as “velvet”, is live bone, growing constantly. For elk, the growth rates can be as much as one inch of bone growth per antler in a single day. Over the course of several months, elk can grow 100’s of inches of antler. The velvet, is a highly vascularized skin; covered in tiny blood vessels, it provides the growing bone with exceptional amounts of blood to deliver necessary nutrients for growth. At this stage of growth, the velvet covered antlers are soft and sensitive. The animals give great concern as to not damage them at this stage. However, damage that is sustained on the antlers at this stage of growth can often lead to abnormalities in the final product of antler; which often present themselves as unique or extra points of the antlers.

 

As the antlers are nurtured and grown throughout the summer, most approach their final stages of development in late summer. Come August, antler growth is nearing completion. Impressive displays of fully grown antlers, covered in their soft furry velvet, decorate the heads of the older males. As growth ceases, a sharp spike in testosterone levels will trigger the next phase of the annual growth of antlers – the shedding of skin and reveal of the final product. 

 

The soft velvet which protected the growth all summer long is now ready to be removed and the antler is ready to harden. At this point, the bone will essentially “die” on the head of the animal, though remaining attached for several more months. As the velvet begins to separate from the finished bone, animals will often rub off the skin onto trees and bushes. Leaving evidence in the form of “rubs” on defenseless pine saplings. This loss of velvet may take only several hours but may also last for several days. Being live skin, the velvet may bleed as it is rubbed off of the antlers and the lucky observer may catch a glimpse of an elk during this process with bits and pieces of velvet dangling like ornaments from an impressive display of newly revealed antlers.

 

The antlers of finished bone growth will now begin to harden, no more growth will be capable from this point on. This newly revealed bone is as you would expect bone to look, pearly white. However, during the vigorous velvet removal process and associated hormone spikes, antlers being thrashed amongst vegetation are quickly coated in different saps and resins, leading to the staining of antlers and giving them the distinctive tan to brown color we generally associate with them.

 

In the weeks after their velvet is lost and their new antlers are being proudly worn on their heads, they become combat weapons and display pieces for males to secure a harem of females and associated breeding rights. Antlers not only aid in physical combat, but also are used as indicators for females as to the fitness and access to resources of the particular male.

 

Following vigorous and physically tolling breeding seasons of autumn, males retreat to sheltered wintering grounds to recover lost resources. Late into their recovery period, the antler cycle begins once again; as antlers all around begin to plummet from their regal head-top positions, onto the forest floor below.

 

 

Forest Fact

Ever notice the really big Ponderosa Pines which are scatter about our forest? The big bodied trees graced with bark of an orange/yellow hue? As a young tree, the ponderosa pine has almost black bark, though after the tree passes somewhere over 100 years in age, the dark bark begins to shed and reveal a layer of lighter orange or yellow colored bark below. 

 

Early loggers and foresters to the area believed the two phases of ponderosa pine to be two distinct species. The younger darker trees being referred to as “blackjack” pines, and the big mature Ponderosas with their elegant orange/yellow bark, called “yellowbelly” pines. Highly coveted by early loggers for their often massive sizes and value as lumber.

 

The big mature “yellowbelly” Ponderosa Pines possess one more unique trait, their smell. Place your nose deep into the furrows of the bark, take a big whiff, and you will be greeted by a pleasant smell; many people compare it to vanilla but depending on the person, other aromas such as butterscotch are more accurate descriptors.