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Red Velvet

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Red Velvet
September 1, 2021
deer with velvet antlers
A deer with velvet-covered antlers.

Graceful arched antlers. Soft fuzzy velvet. And then – a touch of deep, blood-filled red. Welcome to the rut, that breeding season for animals like the bison, elk, caribou, bighorn sheep and deer that call our Free-Roaming Area home. If you know anything about rut, you’ll know that for Roosevelt elk and others in the deer family, it means sparring with huge antler clashes to vie for herd dominance.

But there’s a less audible part of the rut that’s just as visually striking – and is essential to all that antler clashing.

Losing velvet.

An elk shedding antler velvet.
An elk shedding antler velvet.

Velvet (in animal terms) is the soft, fuzzy layer that covers male deer and elk antlers for a small window of time each year. But while it looks like a cozy covering, it’s actually more like a suit of armor to protect what’s growing underneath. Elk velvet is a concentrated network of blood vessels and nerves that covers new antlers for around five months every spring and summer. As the antlers grow to replace those shed last winter, they harden and strengthen into the formidable weapons a male elk or deer will use in combat to win the females in the herd for breeding.

elk sparring
Elk sparring in rut.

As the antlers grow, the velvet provides constant nourishment and protection to those hardening antlers – the reason why they are the fastest-growing tissue of any mammal.

But when the antlers – and the elk – are hardened and ready for sparring in fall rut, the velvet needs to go. As the dense blood vessels burst, the fuzzy velvet falls in swathes of red from the antler rack. It looks gory, but it’s quite painless for the animal. Sometimes it takes days or weeks, other times just a few hours as the elk rub against trees to hasten the process.

If you’re out in the Free-Roaming Area during this time of August-September, keep an eagle eye out to spot that red velvet – and come back to see the rut action!

Elk with bare and velveted antlers.
Elk with bare and velveted antlers.