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We might as well put another article out there on the males of this wonderful species and I think it’s a good idea to look at the malformed sambar stags within our herd.
Malformation is an irregularity to what is considered normal or typical. At 2.5 years of age and onwards most sambar should have 3 tines on each side which will develop and grow in proportion to each other as the stag ages. So when using the word malform in reference to sambar stags antlers it is normally referred to abnormal antler formation. The styles often vary between animals and malformed sambar can be unique trophies in their own way, often even sought after by hunters looking for something different then a typical set.
A few of the more common styles of malformed antlers are a normal three point antler on one side and a spike on the other. This spike can vary considerably in size from a short stub to a long dagger. Often deer are missing inners on one or both sides and will never grow them and this is regularly seen in certain areas. Sometimes the stag grows a handlebar type set of antlers where there are short brows and big long beams that sweep back over the animals neck. This style is very impressive and sometimes inner tines are grown and on other stags even extra tines are pushed out on the beams. Occasionally the stag will just grow a set of antlers that are a brow with a short main beam. He might appear stunted and will carry this style throughout his life maybe adding on weight and a small amount of length to the beams. Really there is no hard and fast rule with styles of malformed sambar so anything can be expected when stags grow them.
Generally there are three reasons a young sambar stag will grow an abnormal set of antlers. It is either a genetic trait, poor nutrition or the stag has suffered from an injury and in order for his body to compensate for the illness the opposite side to the injury will grow abnormally. Very occasionally there might also be damage to the antlers in the velvet growing stage and when they are stripped there is an abnormal appearance to them. It might be a knock on a tree or fence that causes a kink, bend or change of direction for the antler beam, but for this type of malformed appearance it is probably only a very low percentage of animals within the herd that are affected this way.
If a male fawn is born in an area with high deer numbers and below average food source, poor nutrition could be a factor in underdevelopment of antlers as it progresses through life. In order to get a kick start in life it is vital for fawns to have healthy, well conditioned mothers and then once they are weaned it is critical that they have quality food source available. If there is less then adequate nutrition in the area, and I can think of many locations where there are too many deer and the food source isn’t entirely suitable, then those male deer will certainly never reach their full capacity with both body weight and antler growth. The hinds will also suffer and when you see skinny looking younger deer with their ribs and bones showing you know there are too many animals for that habitat to handle.
You only have to glance through the magazine and really take notice of the different sambar that are harvested, consider their age, time of the year they were taken, and then look at their body dimensions, skull sizes and antler growth. There is a big variance between stags in many areas and once you start analyzing them more closely, you can really see the differences. Even looking at any full skulls you might have at home from stags will give you an indication as well as to the health and genetics of that animal. A quick measure of length and width would see many varied numbers recorded amongst any animals of similar ages you might have in the trophy room.
To reduce any potential antler issues arising from poor nutrition in areas, there is a very simple solution, shoot more hinds from the herd and lower the numbers. It sounds rhetoric I know, but it is really that easy and that important to do. I shake my head when I constantly read about guys walking past a heap of hinds and shooting the first stag with antler that presents.
In regards to genetics, I believe this would be the cause of around 70-80% of all malformed sambar stags.
Sometimes inbreeding or lack of genetic diversity can result in this trait coming through, but more often the big problem is hunters see animals with poor or irregular antler growth and they leave them not wanting to disturb the area. This in turn lets them live and gives them the opportunity to keep passing on their inferior genes when they get an opportunity at a cycling hind. It also must be remembered that the hinds are responsible for half of the genetic traits of any new born sambar and as we obviously can’t tell which hinds are capable of throwing poorer genetics in wild herds, we are up against ever getting on top of the issue. But what we can do is chip away at the other 50% of animals that do hold the genes and that means shooting any poorer antlered stags for the long term benefit of the herd. Every malformed deer shot will be another tick for the local herd to potentially produce a greater percentage of typical antlered stags.
I believe malformation due to ill health or injury would be quite a small percentage. It would happen for sure, but as sambar generally are very resilient and resistive to diseases I will speculate that they don’t suffer from this issue that often. Even if they get knocked around in a fight or enter spring and the velvet growing period coming off a hard winter in lean body condition they still should be able to grow a typical set of antlers. If they have been severely beaten up and suffered extensive puncture wounds, or have had injuries from a poorly placed shot or been hit by a car and suffered fractured or damage to their skeletal structure, then it would be safe to assume a good percentage of these deer would grow irregular antlers the next year. Unless you see the deer limping, or signs of obvious injury, then it would be very hard to put the malformation down to poor health rather then genetics. As most fighting wounds and injuries will heal over time and it takes quite a while for the deer to cast, then grow another set of antlers, by the time he has completed his antler cycle again he is probably back to normal health with no visual signs of injury.
I remember a big mature stag we shot mid morning one May, he was in hard velvet and grew a very weird set of antlers. The brows were short and he had heavy 28 inch beams that pushed straight out over 40 inches in width. He only had an inner on one side and he was certainly irregular with his growth. On closer inspection of him we found he had a bullet hole just above his nose and well below the level of his eyes. It had failed to penetrate through all the bone and into the brain and looked to be from a smaller caliber projectile. He must have been in terrible pain for a long time and whilst he survived and carried a massive body he just didn’t grow typical antler formation.
It’s interesting how our attitudes and decision making changes as our knowledge increases and many years ago there was a stag that the lads used to glass from a hillside that had a short set of antlers that curled back and down from his skull. He wasn’t appealing for anybody to shoot and over the years he was seen regularly but never really did much with antler development. He was always left alone as there were plenty of deer in the area and my mates didn’t want to fire off shots and potentially alarm any of the other stags that lived along the river valley. Eventually one of the boys seen him step out onto the grass early in the evening and decided enough was enough and harvested him. They had got a bit attached to seeing him over the years, but ultimately he wasn’t doing the herd any favors being there and probably should have been shot a lot earlier. He no doubt would have mated with plenty of hinds and potentially passed the poor genetics onto many future animals.
It also needs to be said that big old stags past their prime start loosing antler style and growth and often they get quite irregular as each year passes them by. These types of stags shouldn’t be referred to as malformed animals, more so old stags that are regressing and heading back in antler growth. Old sambar make great trophies as they are taken when the bulk of the breeding by that animal has been completed and they are normally extremely smart to have survived so long in the bush. There is no hard and fast rule as to what these stags turn into with their antler styles as they grow old and they will all be a little bit different.
Many regions consider an old stag heading back in antler growth in the twilight of his years a much greater animal to remove from the herd then a middle aged male that will be doing a lot of the breeding. Our perceptions in Australia and New Zealand are often that bigger is best for both antler and horn size when you hunt for an animal, yet for the long term sustainability of any herd, these are the animals that are in their prime serving the females. The weaker genetics, older animals and excess hinds are the ones we should be paying close attention to if we want to have long term vision with our game herds.
If you use trail cameras, they are a great tool to learn from in regards to following stags over successive years and if you do get a malformed stag on camera one year you can see what he looks like the next if he turns back up. This can often reaffirm that he is indeed malformed as a result of poor genetics and not personal health from an injury.
I believe many of the stags with a single good antler and a small stump or short growth on the opposite side are poor genetics and we see this across the entire range of our sambar herd. If the deer is a mature stag and has an excellent single side often the hunter remarks that if he only had of grown two antlers the same he would have been very big. Reality is because that stag only had one side to put into with antler growth, all his potential went into the single side and it resulted in greater then normal growth then if he had of been attempting to grow two even antlers. Its still an impressive animal to see an extra large antler on one side and a stump on the other, but again if we can remove them from the herd it is better to do so.
Determining a malformed stag can be either straight forward or complicated, depending on the style and the angles you are getting from the deer. First up you need to determine that there are actually two antlers on the stag and that it isn’t an animal that has freshly cast a single side. Don’t rush in and bowl over a single antlered stag thinking he is a malform to discover he has recently cast one side, nobody will come out a winner in this situation. A short few seconds behind the optics assessing the deer and antlers is always time well spent.
Male sambar regularly fight between each other, so there is always the potential for broken tines or busted antlers. This also can give the appearance of a malformed stag due to the fact a portion of the antler is missing. Again it is well worth taking a few seconds to really look at the antlers and see if any missing tines or beams were in fact there when the set was grown. You should be able to figure this out and if so, let the deer walk because a busted antlered stag will grow a normal set the following year.
There is always healthy discussion about whether young stags from 2.5 years of age and onwards that show antler irregularity actually carry this trait through their lives or if some stags just take time to reach full potential and show it in there antler cycle. By 2.5 years they have grown their second set of antlers, and should give an indication of where they are headed. I would assume that most of the stags that are missing tines have shorter antlers on one side and irregular formation probably continue this trait. I have always been one to try and remove these types of deer whenever possible, especially in areas with high deer numbers. I’m confident the nicely formed compact looking small 6 point stags at 2.5 years of age have every chance of growing into good deer. On the other side of the discussion, I have read studies that show some animals do actually take time to show their best potential, both behind wire and in the wild and I’m sure to an extent this could be applicable to our wild sambar.
Taking it a step further some regions in certain European countries have very strict management policies where deer numbers are tightly regulated and any young males with irregular spikes or shorter then expected length to the spike are removed. In a well balanced and closely monitored herd this is achievable but it is certainly hard to implement in wild animals living in a big range of habitat.
I have often wondered just how different the wild stags end up growing when comparing a spiker with a couple of inches of antler to another that has 10-12 inches of growth. Studies on this would be quite interesting and id say the deer with longer spikes should produce longer antlers as he progresses through life.
It’s probably safe to say we might never get on top of the issue of having malformed animals in our sambar herds, but if we can take as many poor genetic stags as we possibly can then we are at least reducing the percentage that are capable of breeding hinds. Try to leave those really nice young stylish stags alone and by shooting more hinds to balance ratios we also improve available nutrition for the resident deer and this will increase the health of our herd and in turn contribute to a greater likelihood of more stags reaching maturity with quality antlers.