Why do female reindeer grow antlers?

Biologist Craig Roberts answers your wild question.

Why do female reindeer grow antlers?

Reindeer in the Cairngorms © Hen Robinson


Males of almost all deer species grow antlers, used to battle for females.

But reindeer are the only species in which the females also grow them, and an explanation can be found by looking at bovids, a closely related family including antelopes, goats and sheep.

Many female bovids have horns, used to defend food or territories from other females.

In exactly the same way, female reindeer use their antlers to defend food in small patches 
of cleared snow. Those with the largest antlers tend to be socially dominant and in the best overall physical condition.

Unlike horns, antlers are shed each year. In males, this happens in late autumn, after the rut.

Females retain their antlers until spring, because access to food is critical during their winter pregnancy. Some scientists therefore argue that Rudolph, who is universally depicted in late December with intact antlers, is female.

In fact, most of the reindeer used to pull sleds are castrated males – they are easier to handle, and have antler cycles similar to those of the females.

Not all females have antlers, however, because growing them costs a lot of energy. In habitats where food is scarce or of poor quality, antlerless females dominate.


Click here to read more of our Wildlife Q&As.

Do you have a wildlife question you’d like answered? Email your question to wildquestions@immediate.co.uk or post it to Q&A, BBC Wildlife Magazine, Immediate Media Company, 9th Floor, Tower House, Fairfax Street, Bristol, BS1 3BN


We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here