Elk sport velvet-covered antlers as they hang out in a meadow in Jackson Hole on a recent June morning.
The velvet is infused with blood vessels enabling the bone and calcium antler to grow and harden. Once the Antlers have grown to full-size, typically in August, elk begin to rub the covering off. Olaus Murie, author of the classic “The Elk of North America,” described the annual event.
“The velvet is loosened and scraped away by constant rubbing and threshing by the restless elk against bushes and tree limbs, and during the process numerous young evergreens are rubbed bare of limbs and bark and are demolished. … This constant rubbing eventually leaves the antlers cleaned, polished and stained and a portion of the landscape more or less disfigured.”
Antler velvet is common in Asian medicine where it is administered orally. But researchers have discovered that it can carry prions associated with Chronic Wasting Disease, a cousin of mad cow disease in cattle and the brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. “Our studies indicate that antler velvet represents an additional source for human exposure to CWD prions,” researchers wrote in 2009 in the Journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.