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Bull elk in evening Fall light.The North American Elk (Cervus elaphus) is also called the Wapiti,Each spring, male deer and elk begin
growing antlers from bony bumps on their skulls called pedicles.
Increasing daylight elevates the level of the hormone testosterone in the animal's blood, which
triggers the growth of antlers. Antlers begin as layer upon layer of cartilage that slowly mineralizes
into bone. They are light and easily damaged until they completely mineralize in late summer.
A soft covering called velvet helps protect the antlers and carries blood to the growing bone tissue.
If you look closely at a deer or elk antler, you'll see grooves and ridges on it. These mark the paths
of veins that carried blood throughout the growing antlers. The blood stops flowing to the antlers in
August, the antlers finish hardening, and the velvet falls off or is rubbed off. The hardened antlers
are composed of calcium, phosphorous and as much as 50 percent water.
An antler grows faster than any other kind of bone. It can grow up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) a day during the
summer. Biologists are studying antlers in the hopes of learning the secrets of rampant cell growth,
secrets that may unlock cures to various forms of cancer.
In the second year, a bull elk usually grows slim, unbranched antlers called spikes that are 10-20 inches
(25-50 cm) long. By the third year, antlers begin developing tines that branch from the main beam.
By the seventh summer, a bull's antlers may have six tines each, weigh as much as 40 pounds (18 kg),
and grow to a length and spread of more than four feet (1.2 m). Why would an animal need to carry
around a rack of antlers that weighs so much? A large rack identifies a bull that is successful in
finding food, lots of food.
A bull must consume huge amounts of nutrients to obtain the energy and minerals needed to grow antlers
as well as the energy to carry them around. Large antlers also identify a bull that is able to defend
himself against other bulls and against predators. This information is of great interest to female elk
(cows) because they will mate with the strongest, most successful males -- usually the bulls with the
Bull elk lose their antlers each March, but they begin to grow them back in May in preparation for the
late-summer breeding season.
In early summer, elk migrate to high mountain grazing grounds where the cows (females) will give birth.
Each cow typically has a single calf, which can stand by the time it is 20 minutes old,
but it can not run fast or for long periods of time. For the first few weeks, the mother will hide her
calf in thick brush and graze at a distance so she won't draw attention to its presence. The calf stays
motionless, stirring only when the mother returns for nursing. This is when the calf is most vulnerable.
Bears, coyotes, mountain lions and wolves will be looking for it. The calf's spotted coat helps to
camouflage it and the calf itself produces no odor, making it harder to find. If the female elk feels
her calf is threatened she will rush to its defense, using hooves and teeth to drive the predator away.
When the calf is approximately 3 weeks old, both it and its mother will rejoin the female herd. Once
within the herd, the calf's chances of survival are greatly improved.
During the late summer breeding season the bugling of bull elk echoes through the mountains.
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October 6th, 2012
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