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Shedding velvet

Male deer and elk don’t have horns, they have antlers. Antlers are different from horns because they fall off every year, and the male deer and elk grow new ones. Male moose also grow antlers.

A strange thing is happening with antlers right now in Montana and Wyoming. The male elk and deer are shedding or have just shed the soft covering that helps their antlers grow in the spring and summer. This layer of skin-like material is called velvet because it looks and feels kind of like the material velvet.

The velvet is thick with blood vessels that nourish the antlers, which are bones, while they are growing. At about the end of August, the velvet begins falling off. The animals will help scrape it off, too, by rubbing their antlers on bushes and trees.

When this happens you may see one of the animals walking around with strange-looking pieces of the velvet hanging off their antlers. When it finally falls off, the deer, elk or moose may eat the protein-rich velvet.

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In Yellowstone National Park bull elk will spend about three to four months growing new antlers. Older bulls’ antlers can grow two-thirds of an inch each day in the second half of their antler-growing season. A big bull’s antlers can measure 5 feet long, 6 feet wide and weigh up to 15 pounds each.

Once elk shed their velvet it’s a signal that the mating season, called the rut, is soon to begin. The bull elk will then use their antlers to fight other bulls for the opportunity to mate with a female elk, called a cow.

During the rut bull elk can be very unpredictable and have been known to charge humans and automobiles in places like Yellowstone National Park. So be safe and stay far away from them. Binoculars are a good way to see the animals up close without having to get close and be in danger.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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