Having antlers is completely bonkers.
First, the 'obvious' answers:
Are they for fighting other deer ?
In the mating season, the males fight over the females with their antlers. They lock the antlers together to see who is the strongest. The strongest deer gets the most females.
FOR: This happens. I have seen it. Red deer are famous for having the 'rut', but sika and fallow deer have one as well, and roe deer fight over territory (like above).
AGAINST: Roe bucks and red deer stags may fight, but they rarely lock antlers. In the fight above, the roe deer didn't connect antlers once. And not all male deer have antlers (Chinese water deer don't). You don't always need antlers to fight (females, and red deer in velvet can 'box' with their front legs to fight). And it doesn't explain why female reindeer have antlers as well. Also, red deer only lock antlers as a last resort, and they try to size up their opponents before.
Are they for telling male and female deer apart ?
So maybe there isn't one answer as to why deer have antlers, because different species use their antlers in different ways. Here are some of the UK species:
The antlers probably aren't a good signal to females, because females don't seem to have much say in which male they mate with, unlike female moose (cows) who mate with the male (bull) with the biggest antlers.
Fallow deer have this lovely palmation on their antlers. It makes them look distinctive, because they are the only UK species with palmation. None of my books explain why the antlers grow like this, but in moose it's thought maybe they reflect sound back onto the ears and so help them hear things from a long way away. But this seems unlikely with fallow. They have the same front-facing tines at the bottom of the antler, like red deer, possibly to help them fight other males.
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