By now it's no secret that it is possible to stumble across some interesting or downright bizarre things in the Missouri woods. Nature has a way of amazing us with mutations and adaptations that change the appearance of what has come to be accepted as normal into something else entirely. Sometimes this makes for small changes and in other cases quite impressive ones. Whether it is does with antlers or melanistic deer, sometimes we are surprised by what we find naturally occurring in the world we know. It doesn't end there, however, as there are plenty more phenomenon for our eyes to take in. One such example of this is known as cactus buck.
Antlers as we know it do not exist on the head of the typical cactus buck. Instead of a set of normal antlers, cactus bucks grow something else entirely. In these deer, antlers appear deformed and tend to retain velvet permanently. In the case of does that grow antlers, it is usually this type. In addition to antlers maintaining velvet, the shape of the antler itself is distorted. The base tends to be thick and the antlers themselves have several knobby bumps and points which is what has aligned them with the word cactus as a descriptor of their appearance.
Stranger yet than the look of cactus buck antlers is the behavior associated with the deer that grow them. Instead of exhibiting typical buck behaviors such as rut, they are disinterested in does. Although they are sometimes seem with a herd of does, they are not likely to mount does. They also do not engage other bucks that may attempt to move in on does. What would normally be unwelcome suitors are essentially given a free pass with no objection from a cactus buck.
The reason for both the behavior and the appearance of a cactus buck is a lack of testosterone. It is thanks to low testosterone that these antlers look the way they do since testosterone and antler development go hand in hand. Testosterone output can be affected by several things but is primary seen due to testicular injury. Since the testicles are responsible for testosterone, any impairment in their function can cause a cactus buck. Essentially bucks can be accidentally castrated or otherwise injured, altering the course of their antlers for the remainder of their lives. Additionally disease can impair testicle function and/or hormone production and result in a cactus buck, such as in the case of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD).
In addition to the cactus-like appearance, the antlers of bucks with testosterone issues can be affected in other ways. For example, bucks that are injured as fawns may simply never grown antlers in the first place. Those that are injured later in life may grow antlers that they retain permanently for the remainder of their days and that never lose their velvet. After death, however, the velvet may shrivel and slough off.
Although cactus bucks are not too common, they have been seen in Missouri in the past. Since the development of this type of antler is generally attributed to testicular injury, finding one requires some misfortune on the part of the deer. Also unfortunate, however, is acquiring epizootic hemorrhagic disease which is spread by a biting midge fly and can inhibit testosterone production. Signs of this disease are sloughed hoofs growing back as well as sores on the tongue or in the mouth in addition to cactus-like antlers. EHD is a survivable disease but should be reported to the Missouri Department of Conservation when seen.
Have you ever harvested your own cactus buck? What about seeing one in the field? Let us know in the comments!