A newly published study in Nature Ecology and Evolution sheds light on why bull elk shed their antlers later than other big game species. Researchers found wolves in Yellowstone Park preferred to hunt bulls that already shed their antlers compared to those yet to do so.
“Because wolves often prefer elk in these systems, male elk uniquely keep their antlers for much of the winter,” Matt Metz, University of Montana researcher, told phys.org. “Other species, say moose in our study system, shed their antlers beginning in December. We believe elk evolved to keep their antlers longer than any other North American deer because they use their antlers as an effective deterrent against wolf predation.”
Once elk shed their antlers during winter, they immediately begin growing new, larger antlers which they use to ward off rivals during the breeding season.
“These males that shed their antlers first are more vulnerable to being killed by wolves despite being in better nutritional condition,” Metz said. “The individuals who are in the best condition are the first to drop their antlers to get a leg up on growing larger antlers for the next season and therefore gain the greatest reproductive success.”
Researchers also determined bulls use their antlers to fend off predators.
Go here to read more about the study.
(Photo source: Charlie Cropp)