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The Silent Communication of White-tailed Bucks

9-23-14  antler rub IMG_7310Rising levels of testosterone circulating in a buck’s blood toward the end of summer results in the maturation of antlers and the drying up of the velvet that was providing nutrients to them. It used to be thought that bucks engaged in rubbing their antlers against saplings at this time of year in order to remove the velvet, but research has shown there is much more behind this behavior. Rubs are visual and olfactory sign posts that transmit important information to other bucks and does in the area prior to and during rut, such as individual buck identification, breeding readiness, age and hierarchy.

The positioning of the antlers against a tree is not random — a buck generally rubs the base of his antlers and his forehead skin against the tree. The skin between antlers contains a multitude of scent-producing skin glands called apocrine glands (humans have them and utilize them during emotional sweating). These glands typically are inactive during the summer months, but in response to rising testosterone levels, they become increasingly active in the fall. The most active glands are found in mature dominant bucks.

Thanks to recent studies we know that more rubs are made in years of good acorn production than in poor mast years. Young bucks appear to make fewer rubs than mature bucks, and they tend to start rubbing much later in the fall (so rubs you find now were most likely made by mature bucks). Research suggests that older bucks may be making more than 1200 rubs during the roughly 90-day rubbing period, which comes to about 15 rubs per day.

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5 responses

  1. ben

    Rubbing is usually accompanied with chewing of upper branches. I didn’t know this until recently and now every time I find a rub, sure enough I see chewed branches 🙂

    September 23, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    • I’ll definitely keep my eye out for that! Thanks, Ben.

      September 23, 2014 at 1:27 pm

  2. Fran Philippe

    Hi! I absolutely LOVE your posts.

    I came across this beauty of a caterpillar just yesterday. Is it one that your familiar with?

    Many thanks,


    September 23, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    • Hi Fran,
      I’m afraid wordpress doesn’t allow photos to come through. Can you email your caterpillar to me at Many thanks!

      September 23, 2014 at 2:34 pm

  3. Hi Mary! I love your blog. I heard about it from a friend of mine that has it saved as her startup page, and now I do as well! Any thoughts about why deer would rub more during mast years? My guess would be about energy efficiency–if it’s more likely that everyone is well fed, then it’s more likely that signs about mating would yield more success in the long-run. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about that. You may like my blog as well, it’s along similar lines:

    September 26, 2014 at 10:59 am

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