A complex deer case: the antlered doe phenomenon

(Bill Key photo)

A few years ago, an Illinois Outdoor News reader emailed me several trail camera photos of what he believed was an antlered doe. The antlers weren’t huge, but they appeared fairly “typical.”

However, the photos were taken in the fall, yet instead of a hard, polished head bone, the rack was covered in velvet. The reader told me that he assumed it was an antlered doe and asked for my opinion.

I’d heard about antlered does, and had come across articles about this oddity over the years, but aside from that, my knowledge on the subject was minimal at best. Intrigued, I informed him that I would look into this topic.

After several hours of investigating, and a few lengthy conversations with colleagues, I had not only an overwhelming amount of information, but the complexity of the subject matter, in itself, was enough to make the mind of a layman (that’s me) spin like a nausea-inducing carnival ride.

Oftentimes, a deer believed to be an antlered female is actually not a female at all, or may be part female. Or, the animal could possibly be a buck with serious reproductive problems. These are only a few among a multitude of explanations. Like I said … this stuff can make one’s (mine) brain hurt.

One professional I reached out to was John Ozoga, a respected deer research scientist of 37 years, who is now retired. Some of the possibilities:

Hermaphrodites — A true hermaphrodite has both male and female internal sex organs, ovaries and testes. However, there are numerous combinations concerning the makeup of the sex organs and their location in the body. Outwardly, it’s possible for a hermaphrodite deer to have either male or female external reproductive organs. Alternatively, the animal may simultaneously possess both male and female external sex organs.

Pseudo-hermaphrodites — Otherwise known as cryptorchid males, the term pseudo-hermaphrodite also illustrates an intersex condition in which sex organs are anatomically incorrect. With this disorder, deer possess the internal reproductive organs of one sex, but external genitalia that resembles the opposite sex. The extent of any determining characteristic in an individual deer can vary.

True antlered does — Ozoga says that doe antlers have been described as velvet-covered pedicles only, small button antlers, small velvet-covered spikes with occasional branching, and hard-polished antlers, which usually occur in bucks. Ozoga also notes that European researchers found that the size and characteristics of doe antlers differed depending on the condition of the deer’s reproductive tract. Classically, a doe carrying hardened, polished antlers implies severe reproductive problems. However, in most circumstances, mature antlers would be indicative of a hermaphrodite or pseudo-hermaphrodite anomaly.

Read more about this peculiar defect in an upcoming issue of Illinois Outdoor News.

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