Last month I was tipped off that a hunter in northern Iowa had a hard-horned buck at his farm on the 4th of July. Accompanying the message were a couple trail camera pictures dated appropriately, showing a velvet buck and hard horned buck at the same mineral pile. I was immediately skeptical, so I tracked down the owner of the pictures to see what he could tell me.
“This buck was one of the first pictures I had on camera this summer,” said Aaron Anderson of Linn Grove, IA. “I actually cursed the memory card when I started going through it, thinking that there was a malfunction and it was showing me pictures from last fall. I quickly realized that wasn’t the case, though, and that there was actually a hard-horned buck running around.”
Aaron seemed genuine on the phone, but I still wasn’t convinced. After all, what he was claiming is something that befuddled every biologist I talked to. To erase all doubt, Aaron agreed to set his trail cameras to video mode to get footage that couldn’t be photoshopped or fabricated.
What he sent me a few days later did just that, proving this was no hoax.
This is a whitetail that Aaron’s familiar with. He met the deer in 2015 as a 2.5-year-old, and the buck really got his attention in 2016 as an up and coming 3.5-year-old. It was his promising frame as a young buck that earned him the nickname “Potential.” In 2017, the buck was on his radar, but Aaron was never given a shot.
Potential vanished in October to never be seen again that season. The timing of the disappearance didn’t seem to be a coincidence to Aaron.
“Early last fall we had a mountain lion roll through the area that terrorized the farm. I found 14 dead deer from the cougar, including a handful of mature bucks. I thought this buck met the same fate.”
Potential has become a regular on Aaron’s farm this summer, though. Assuming another lion doesn’t show up this fall, he expects to get a crack at the deer. Given the chance, Aaron would love to harvest the buck and find out what’s caused the abnormal antler cycle. Until then, we can only speculate.
“From our knowledge of whitetails, this is unprecedented,” said Lindsay Thomas Jr., director of communications at The Quality Deer Management Association.
With little to go on, Lindsay put me in contact with some of the most well-respected deer biologists and animal scientists in the world. If anybody had an answer, it would be this group.
Is it a stag buck?
When I first posted a picture of this buck on social media, there were two common guesses that people had as to what is going on with this deer. The most popular theory was that this is a “stag” or “cactus” buck.
Stag bucks are notorious for their unique velvet racks. This is from a development issue or injury to a buck’s testicles. Stags don’t experience rising testosterone levels that normal bucks do, which is why they stay in velvet all fall and grow to abnormal sizes. Stags don’t participate in the rut, either, and usually keep their wits about them when other bucks only have one thing on their mind.
This is most definitely not a stag buck, though. Since stags have very low testosterone levels, they actually do the opposite of this buck and drop their antlers sooner. Also, stag bucks usually don’t get hard-horned, but rather stay in velvet all season.
Is it an antlered doe?
Another prevalent guess for this deer is that it’s not actually buck at all, but instead an antlered doe. Antlered does can be classified into two categories: true antlered doe or true hermaphrodite.
A true antlered doe is a deer with female sex organs that has antler growth. However, with a true antlered doe, the growth is always minimal and rarely exceeds “spike” buck status. A true hermaphrodite is a buck that has both male and female sex organs with antler growth, but these deer typically stay in velvet and cast their antlers early.
Aaron has ruled out the antlered doe theory himself, as he’s seen the buck chase does during the rut and knows Potential has had normal antler cycles every season prior. From pictures, it appears there’s no way this is a doe either, as the deer has a massive body and swollen neck.
Is it a Doppelkopf buck?
While stag bucks and antlered does are uncommon, even more rare is a Doppelkopf buck. Doppelkopf means “double set” in German and refers to deer that retain their old antler while growing a new one.
Information is fairly limited when it comes to Doppelkopf bucks, but in most recorded cases the condition is thanks to a head injury around the pedicle. This damages nerves involved with antler growth and causes the antler cycle to fail.
For Doppelkopf bucks, you’ll see new antler growth at the base of the old antler in spring. This will continue throughout summer, as a fresh velvet antler will rise until the old antler is cast.
The Doppelkopf theory is possible for Aaron’s buck, but it’s hard to accept this is the answer. Unlike Potential, Doppelkopf bucks only retain one antler.
Also, while it looks like there might be a small bit of velvet growing under the buck’s left antler, it’s not as much as most Doppelkopf bucks get. If this were a true Doppelkopf, it would have large velvet masses at the base of both antlers and be clearly noticeable by July.
What is it then?
The different biologists and scientists I reached out to could all agree on one thing – this buck has heightened testosterone that’s disrupted the normal antler cycle.
Like mentioned earlier with stag bucks, antler casting is triggered by a drop in testosterone. Health can be an indicator as well, with bucks that survived nonlethal archery shots or vehicle collisions losing their headgear sooner.
Does that mean Potential is in perfect health and never experienced the winter testosterone dip that every other buck has? It’s plausible that’s the case.
In defense of this argument, you could point to the mountain lion as a reason for the buck rutting all through winter, spring, and summer. If the buck had perfect nutrition, combined with an imbalanced herd of unbred does, it could create the perfect storm for a buck to keep testosterone levels high.
“Last year the herd was greatly imbalanced on the doe heavy side,” said Aaron. “The cat killed a few mature bucks and drove out many others from the area.”
But, Aaron also noted that it seemed like most of the mature bucks filed back into the property by summer. If this was a case of Potential staying rutty because of too many does, he would have likely cast his antlers at some point when herd balance returned.
For that reason, I think the “perfect health” theory isn’t quite on track. In fact, I believe it might be the opposite and that his buck has a serious health problem.
There are a few different disorders in humans where a side effect is a natural increase in testosterone. One of them is hyperthyroidism, where the gland that regulates hormones produces unusually high amounts of the thyroid hormone and causes increased testosterone. Another possibility is that this buck has an adrenal gland tumor, which would make excess adrenalin and in turn increase steroid hormones such as testosterone.
It’s a wide spectrum, but it seems most probable that this buck has heightened testosterone through either perfect health, or a condition that could be fatal. Whatever it might be, this deer that has defied explanation may bring us answers sooner rather than later.
“The first hunt on the farm is in late September for physically challenged or terminally ill children. I’m going to try my best to put them on this buck, as it would be a blessing to see one of them harvest such a unique whitetail,” Aaron told me. “It would be a special buck for a special hunt.”
A special thanks to Lindsay Thomas Jr. of the Quality Deer Management Association, David Osborn of the University of Georgia, Karl Miller of the University of Georgia, and Bartos Ludek of Prague University for helping me gather information on this buck.