NDA member Tes Randle Jolly of Alabama has been photographing whitetails professionally for many years. She’s seen many versions of the noble, “normal,” whitetail buck. She’s also seen the odd and unusual examples that result from injury, age, and misfires in the complicated process that grows new bones atop their skulls each year. She recently shared with us some of the wildest antlers in her photo collection.
For several years, a mysterious and elusive Tennessee buck local photographers called “Spook” would appear briefly during the rut then disappear for long periods. Only a few photographers had encountered him long enough to make images of the bizarre rack that looked as if the beams’ ends were melting. I was one of the lucky ones on a day when Spook was laser-focused on scent-trailing a hot doe.
He had stopped for a few seconds and lip-curled long enough for me to capture a few frames. His face was a wreck, and the body bore scars. The nose and lips showed signs of past severe injury, and he was missing a couple of teeth. In less than a minute, Spook vanished into the forest. Not exactly a picture-perfect calendar buck but a one-of-a-kind survivor and a great example of how “stuff happens” to deer, too.
This unlucky young buck has a freshly wrecked rack. The pedicle base appears to be broken beneath the skin. There are no other outward injuries apparent. In early fall 2023, I was able to observe this deer most days. The buck at first seemed very bothered, shaking his head as the bloodied, free-swinging antler flopped about.
After a week there was noticeable swelling on the skull. If infection sets in, the injury could end up being a deadly one. However, a few years ago, I witnessed a similar buck I named Sorehead. I followed Sorehead’s progress for two years post-injury, and amazingly it healed and a completely normal antler grew the next year. I’m hoping Sorehead Jr.’s outcome will be the same.
We nicknamed this Alabama buck Casper for his light-colored face. I first photographed him with a typical 8-point rack in 2019 (left). Oddly, there were no obvious physical signs of past injury and his overall physical condition was good in the fall of 2020 when he appeared with the weird right antler (right). Note the small, white, velvet-covered lump at the antler base.
What are possible causes besides injury for such a drastic change in antler configuration on only one side? Among them are injuries to the antler pedicle at some phase of antler growth, and even skeletal injuries to the legs can cause odd antlers on one side. A cranial abscess, which is a superficial infection on the head that can eventually penetrate the skull, can also cause this type of deformity. Which one caused Casper’s condition, if any of them, is unknown. But the fact he had a normal antler the year before shows this is not a genetic problem.
My first impression of this buck’s rack was the combover look of the abnormal side and his reddish winter coat. “The Donald” was a tank of a deer, a worn and weathered warrior whose body showed evidence of serious rut battles throughout the years. Could injuries have affected the antler growth? Racks like his can inflict deadly injuries or gouge out the eyes of competitors. This particular day he was tending a doe and chased several intruders from the area before breeding her.
This unusual buck lived a long life in a National Park where I have photographed deer for many years. No matter the season, this deer was a full-time member of a doe group and was often seen participating in grooming sessions with them. I never observed any obvious rut behavior, interaction with other bucks, or chasing does. In fact the deer’s demeanor seemed almost serene. The spiky rack was unique not only for its configuration, but it never fully shed the velvet any of the years I photographed this deer.
Testosterone drives the antler cycle, but some deer are born with undescended or misformed testicles (cryptorchidism) or other conditions that prevent normal testosterone production. When that happens, a deer may grow antlers continually without ever shedding velvet or shedding the antlers. Though the specific cause in this case is unknown, this deer no doubt lacked normal hormone production.
This is an old buck I photographed that was never more than a heavy antlered 6-pointer. He was called “Warrior” and was a dominant buck in one area over several seasons. The year this image was made, he had declined to a 5-point but was as aggressive as ever, chasing off bucks and ramming their backsides as they fled.
During the rut, he’d fight with deadly intent every time I saw him with a doe. The average buck peaks in antler potential at age 5½ to 7½ and then declines slowly, but older bucks can remain dominant and active in the rut if that is their individual personality. This is not a management concern, though. If you can tag such a warrior, put his trophy jawbone on the wall with his unique antlers.
After I did a double-take, two thoughts came to mind when this quirky-racked Alabama buck appeared in late summer. Three thoughts actually – salad tongs, praying hands and the narrowest spread on an 8-point buck I’ve ever seen. I decided on “Tongs.” Interestingly, though lacking in impressive head gear, Tongs’ personality wasn’t at all wimpish as he consistently demonstrated an aggressive attitude toward other bucks.
About the Author: Tes Randle Jolly is an award-winning wildlife photographer, freelance writer, hunter and NDA member from Alabama.