Study Shows Biggest Elk Risk Attacks When They Drop Their Antlers Earlier

Sep 25, 2018

Credit Jimbo Stevenson

Bull elk keep their antlers for a significantly longer time than moose or deer, and new research shows that might be to help protect them from predators. 

University of Montana Researcher Matt Metz authored a study published in the journal "Nature Ecology and Evolution," and said his research team observed that the healthiest bulls often dropped their antlers a little earlier than others to give them more time to grow larger antlers by the next breeding season. 

“One of the first bull elk that was killed one winter was an elk that had shed his antlers,” recalled Metz. “And that struck us as a bit odd, and that drew our attention to looking at this and whether wolves were focusing on males that had shed their antlers.”

Metz said the primary use of antlers is to compete for breeding privileges, but bull elk also use them to protect themselves too. Metz said moose drop their antlers immediately after breeding season because they can use their large body size to fight off predators, but elk keep their antlers several weeks longer to use as weapons against attack.

“Instead of serving their primary function as a means to compete for mating opportunities, they’re instead using them as a deterrent from predators.”

It’s well known that wolves prey on the old, the sick and the young. But the new research indicates they may also prey on the healthiest bull elk after they drop their antlers in mid-winter.