Nutrition Begins in the Womb: How Nutrition Influences Genetic Expression
We all know that nutrition plays a role in antler and body growth. What many people don’t know is that a doe’s nutrition while she is carrying offspring can influence the future growth of that offspring both in antler and body growth. When a buck fawn is born to a mother that is undernourished, he will never catch up to other buck fawns raised by mothers with adequate nutrition. The saying goes “you fall behind, you’re left behind.” This phenomenon is known as epigenetics and it occurs when a buck has the genetic makeup to be a super star, but the genes that code for superior antler growth are never transformed because the conditions are less than ideal.
In the hierarchy of essential processes, organ and body growth trump antler growth. Antlers are secondary sexual characteristics and when a buck fawn is raised in an environment that is less than ideal, they simply cannot afford to grow a large set of antlers. Big antlers would compromise their ability to survive or compete for breeding rights. A buck with a large set of antlers and a small body will lose a fight over a doe if they are faced with that situation. It may not be so direct that if they did grow big antlers they would fall over dead, but their allocation of resources toward antler tissue versus other tissue, may mean their immune system may not be as powerful, therefore they would succumb to disease easier.
There was an interesting study published recently on the topic of nutrition causing reduced antler growth in deer in southern Mississippi. They found that bucks born to mothers of poor nutrition had smaller antlers than bucks raised to mothers that had been in the womb of does that had great nutrition. Basically it took two generations of deer to see the effects of increased nutrition on antler growth of offspring. This is why it takes several years for a newly established feeding program to realize the benefits of the additional nutrition.
To help you understand the importance of nutrition, think about Michael Phelps, arguably one of the best athletes on the planet. Michael can afford to burn several thousand calories swimming at break-neck speed because he has proper nutrition. Phelps ate 10,000 plus calories per day when he was training for the 2008 Olympics. He ended up winning 8 Gold medals and set several world records. If you put Michael in a third world country for several months, he wouldn’t perform the same because his diet would not allow him to expend as much energy on production (swimming). The same holds true for a buck fawn living on a pine plantation in southern Georgia versus a buck fawn raised in the farm belt of southern Iowa. The latter grew up with adequate nutrition, and so did his mother. The southern Georgia buck will never be world class buck because available nutrition limits him.
-Tim Neuman, Wildlife Biologist