Tarsal Gland Science

Sponsored by: Atsko Products

By: Bowhunting Biologist Wade Nolan

Even a novice hunter can identify the tarsal gland on the inside of the hind legs of a whitetail deer. Tarsal’s smell rank and seem to darken as the rut approaches. What does the tarsal gland do, what is its purpose? Are they the same on bucks and does? Do they signal the rut or are they just another communication outreach of whitetails? Fact is we know the answer to most of these questions.

When I first went gun hunting in Pa with a bunch of old guys, one of the topics I was barraged with was instructions on how to take my hunting knife and quickly remove the tarsal glands of any deer I killed. I was told that failing to carve these off a deer before I field dressed it would result in the meat being ruined. A bunch of folklore of course but I made tarsal removal job one when a deer went down. It was all horsepucky.

The tarsal gland is an important communication gland that both does and bucks utilize.

What the researchers at University of Georgia have discovered is that both does, fawns immature and mature bucks urinate on their tarsal’s year around. They all conduct the same hula dance, where they put their hocks together and rub the tarsal’s on one another while peeing down their leg. If that isn’t obnoxious enough the next step performed by all deer is licking the urine off the tarsal tuff.

Actually when a bucks tarsal gets real dark and smelly it is partially because he fails to lick the urine off and the urine reacts with both the tarsal gland secretions and unique bacteria that lives in this buck arm pit. This tarsal gland tuff has been compared to the armpit of a man where sweat and gland secretions mingle with human specific bacteria. Most guys I hang out with don’t urinate in on their arm pits but up to that point there is similarity. Both can really stink.

Under the surface, at the tarsal location, there are a series of sebaceous glands that secrete a thick buttery substance. This secretion is relative to that animal only but what the research did turn up was that the glands secreted about the same amount of oily lipid during every month of the year and there was no significant difference between bucks and does. Where it was thought that the gland secretions in bucks might have been increased during the rut, which would explained the amplified odor, just wasn’t happening. The ramped up smell is a just a result of more rub/urination cycles and the fact that the bucks stop licking up the urine.

It is believed that the tarsal gland is a photo ID among whitetails. It likely carries a thumb drive full of data used to communicate.

As far as identification goes, it appears that this tarsal region is something like facial recognition software for whitetails. It is believed that the secretions are reacting to a bacteria bloom unique to this region and that when the bacteria/urine and secretions mingle they produce a smell unique to that deer. It may even be carrying dominance information, health data and sex. We even believe that does ID fawns via the tarsal odor fingerprint.

So imagine a buck rub/urinating over his tarsal’s next a scrape, He is likely saying; I’m here, it’s me, and I’m dominant. In that does also visit scrapes during the rut this is sort of a nightclub scene complete with yard signs.

This buck was taken by Tim Dehn from a treestand in Texas where the deer are extra cautious about human scent.
Atsko Sport-Wash is used by more hunters than any other brand of detergent because it rinses completely and leaves no smelly residue to alert deer.

I have long used a tarsal gland as a scent drag and now you see why it’s a good idea. I still carve them off my bucks. They go into a Ziploc bag and into the freezer. Another scent strategy I use is washing my hunting clothes in Sport-Wash. It leaves no smelly residue and gives me an edge when I’m out there with the best nose in the business.

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One Response to "Tarsal Gland Science"

  1. Gary Reed   2011/09/11 at 7:33 am

    Wade we read your article with some interest. The type of gland referenced (sebaceous glands) is found in numerous areas on a deers body other than the tarsal area as well. Current research we have seen would indicate we are not sure where that identification takes place. Some research indicates identification is based in pheremones not urine or the type of substance that is emitted that you reference. The interesting point is that we think the current state of the science is that we don’t even know where or what part of the body is producing the pheremone, nor can pheremones be duplicated or synthetically recreated. We would appreciate knowing how or be able to read what science would indicate the tarsal is used as the key identification point for deer. We agree that urine can be used to determine health conditions but have not seen the science that would validate dominance related to the tarsal area. If you would please let us know what articles or data you reference in your article, we try to stay current and can’t seem to find data that would support some of those beliefs. Our interest is in staying current on the science.
    Best regards, we look forward to hearing from you.