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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Young Buck’s Ravaged Skull Defies Easy Explanations

Folks who spend much time outdoors eventually stumble into something that makes them question Mother Nature’s indifference to her children’s sufferings.

And then they take a photo and share it with friends, family or anyone else who’ll likely struggle to explain things. When such photos end up on my iPhone, I usually look, shrug, and forward the images to people smarter than I am.

Still, some oddities and ailments are fairly common and easily explained. White-tailed deer, for instance, sometimes develop dark, hairless, nasty-looking growths on their head, neck or shoulders. These so-called “deer warts” are actually cutaneous fibromas, and thought to be caused by a virus from biting insects or deer-to-deer contact. Fibromas are usually found on deer younger than age 2, and appear as one nodule or in vast clumps.

Another common deer affliction involves antlers. If you see a buck with an odd or deformed antler, chances are it suffered a rear-leg injury on its opposite side. This phenomenon, called a “contralateral effect,” is more easily predicted than explained. Research suggests that the worse the wound, the greater the corresponding antler deformity, but scientists still don’t know why or how the contralateral effect happens. The most popular guess is that bucks use resources from their healthier side to help heal the injury, but that hypothesis is tough to prove.

Meanwhile, two wildlife veterinarians at Penn State University — Justin Brown and J.T. Fleegle — recently wrote an article about deer diseases they call the “Mt. Rushmore of unsolved disorders.” One ailment dubbed the “Bullwinkle deer” occurs when a deer’s face and/or nose swell so large it resembles an elk or moose.

Other ailments making the Brown/Fleegle Mt. Rushmore list are …

-- Unusual hair loss, in which deer that regularly visit feeders look like their coat is thinning or they’re losing large patches of hair all over;

-- facial tumors, in which cysts, clotted blood or other abnormal growths cause tumors that can be bone-hard;

-- “floppy tongue syndrome,” in which deer walk around with their long tongue hanging out and flopping around;

-- bubble-face disorder, in which deer develop balloon-like swellings on their face just below their eyes;

-- chronic sinusitis, in which a deer’s sinuses swell with inflammation. It’s likely caused by injury, a viral infection or an infected tooth root.

Which brings us to some photos Jarad Steirer of Kunkletown, Pennsylvania, took of a young buck’s skull that he found along an overgrown powerline. Judging by the skull’s small antlers, the buck was likely about 18 months old. And judging by the massive gaps, holes and bony growths extending from the deer’s forehead to about halfway to its nose, it led a short and tortured life.

Steirer, 37, has been hunting 25 years, and was scouting public lands shortly before Pennsylvania’s archery season opened Sept. 18. He said most, if not all, of the buck’s skeleton was there, too, but he didn’t notice any broken bones or anything besides the skull deformities to explain its death.

“It just looked like it bedded there and died,” Steirer said in an interview. “The bony mess around its eyes and pretty much all of its nasal cavity looked like coral that was bubbling up. I didn’t see anything that looked like bones trying to fuse together. I’m not a biologist, but my best guess is that it’s some kind of abscess that festered a long time. I have to believe that’s what killed it.”

Armed as I am with only a journalism degree and Google app, I felt even less qualified than Steirer to render a hypothesis. I didn’t even know that Pennsylvania forbids people from keeping deer skulls with attached antlers. As Steirer explains the regulations, you can’t pick up antlers unless they’re shed and fully detached. Therefore, Steirer hid the antlered skull while deciding whether to pay $10 per tine to take it home. “It’s neat, but I left it where it was for now,” he said.

Meanwhile, I sent the photos to eight respected deer biologists and wildlife veterinarians in Wisconsin and elsewhere for their assessments. Four biologists agreed the damage was likely from a long-running infection that gradually destroyed much of the buck’s skull near its eyes. Two other biologists, however, thought the buck likely suffered a gunshot wound or some other trauma that was too extensive to fully heal.

“I see a lot of damage and bone growth, but it looks like it got infected somewhere deep inside the skull and worked its way outward over a long time,” said biologist Matt Ross, conservation director of the National Deer Association. “It’s too extensive to be bone cancer, a cranial abscess or any other ailment. The top of the nasal bones look intact, and I don’t see any evidence of bone growing around bullet fragments, so I can’t say anything with certainty.

“My best guess is a grazing wound from a .22 rifle or smaller caliber, or maybe a deep antler puncture that broke bone and got infected,” Ross continued. “The damage was extensive, and chunks of bone are missing. It looks like bone kept trying to calcify and grow, but the infection just kept bubbling out.”

Lindsey Long, a wildlife veterinarian for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said her “best professional guess” was a bacterial infection started in a tooth root, and spread into the sinus cavities to create an abscess. “It’s possible a traumatic puncture introduced bacteria in there, but tooth-root introduction tends to be more common in ruminants,” she said.

Out of curiosity, Long shared the photos with a pathologist for a second opinion. The pathologist said it could be a tooth-root abscess, or even a failed predation attempt that caused injuries that festered. “With the bony remodeling (in the skull), it would have been a chronic infection,” the pathologist wrote.

All eight scientists agreed on one thing, though: They had never before seen such a messed-up deer skull.

“Deer are short-lived creatures, and this shouldn’t happen, but deer don't die between starched bedsheets in numbered rooms," said Keith McCaffery, a retired DNR deer biologist. “I can’t improve on the guess that it was a really bad infection.”

A Pennsylvania hunter found this severely injured skull from a yearling white-tailed buck while scouting in mid-September. — Jarad Steirer photos

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