As one can tell by this weeks social media posts, I recently spent some time hanging out with a couple of amiable and photogenic bachelor herds of elk as they went about their winter business. While the second herd I came across was older and somewhat more majestic with their larger antler displays, it was the younger group, or more specifically, one of the younger bulls that held much of my attention.
I have seen a few images of him floating around from other photographers and various social media groups over the last couple months, so it was a surprise and delight to get to see him myself. He has what is simply known as a non typical antler growth, not an uncommon deformity for antlered ungulates. These growths can produce all manner of deformities, with mule deer and white tailed deer producing racks with extreme numbers of tines, to “drooping” and downward facing antlers with elk. In the case of this particular bull, his right antler appears as though it grew out “backwards”, with the nub that would normally immediately form out of the pedicle (the “socket” from which the antlers grow) having grown out and down from the true pedicle (which in his case seems to be a bit lower and closer to his right eye than is considered normal). This leaves him with an appearance of having possibly been in a battle with another bull whose antler got stuck in this ones head and subsequently removed from the pedicle of the offending bull.
Initially assumed to be genetic, we have learned that most cases of non typical antlers are actually derived from injuries. Damage to an antlers velvet during early seasonal growth can cause deformity in that seasons antlers, but will likely not return with the next years new rack. In other cases the deformity is caused from damage to the pedicle itself. Often times this damage has a more “permanent” effect, leaving the bull to grow a non typical antler every year. And in other cases the deformities occur from an injury elsewhere on the animal, causing the animal to devote its energy to healing the injury rather than forming a healthy rack (which again typically only causes the deformity for that season). In those cases it is also interesting to note that the antler opposite the injury is the one that is deformed (a wound on a back left haunch will cause deformity in the right antler).
After having spoken with another photographer who was present at the time I was observing this bull, it appears that the most likely situation with him is he has a damaged pedicle The gentleman explained that he had been observing and photographing this bull for a second year, and while a somewhat different growth, he has had this deformity in years past. As mentioned above, the right antler doesn’t even appear to be growing out of a pedicle, but directly out of the skull above and behind the right eye. While growths like this can occur as “mis-placed” cells grow antler nubs out of various places on the skull, typically these deformities do not grow a whole antler.
As with most of the other young bulls present in this herd, he spent most of his time simply resting and chewing his cud, occasionally getting a nice scratch of his right shoulder with the misplaced pedicle nub. As the afternoon wore on, a few of the other bulls began to get antsy and square off for sparring practice, and one of them sauntered over to offer challenge. At first he remained bedded down to engage the antagonist, as though to say he wasn’t interested, but the other bull persisted, encouraging him to get up and take in a bit of the winters practice. While they didn’t spar long, it was good to see him still engaging in the day to day with the other bulls and observe his inclusion with the rest of the herd.