Skip to main content

Understanding a Buck's Personal Signature - the Tarsal Gland

Understanding a Buck's Personal Signature - the Tarsal Gland
Understanding a Buck's Personal Signature - the Tarsal Gland

Any deer hunter who has harvested a buck during the rut is familiar with the unmistakable odor emanating from his tarsal glands. While other glands play important roles in whitetail communication, none is more important than the tarsal. In many respects, this gland functions as a deer’s personal signature – its unique identification card.

Over the past two decades, numerous studies at the University of Georgia have greatly advanced our knowledge of whitetail communication. While many questions remain, let’s examine what we know, or at least think we know, about the role of the tarsal gland.

Understanding “THE” Whitetail Gland

Located on the inside of a deer’s hind legs, the tarsal gland consists of a tuft of elongated hairs which often are dark and highly stained, especially on bucks during the breeding season. The skin underneath this tuft has specialized muscles which allow the deer to flare the gland to release a burst of scent. Deer often flare this gland in response to physical trauma or during aggressive interactions with other deer.


Deer often sniff the tarsal glands of other deer, particularly those with which they are unfamiliar. The frequency of tarsal gland sniffing appears to be greater at night, probably because of reduced visibility. By smelling the tarsal scent, deer can not only identify the other deer, but they likely can determine its dominance status, sex, condition, and other socially important information. Aren’t you glad humans are a vision-oriented species!


Most hunters know that bucks urinate onto their tarsal glands during the breeding season during a process known as rub-urination, whereby a buck rubs both tarsal glands together while urinating. It is less widely known that this behavior occurs throughout the year (though less frequently). In fact, bucks and does will urinate onto their tarsal glands about once per day throughout the year. Even day-old fawns have been observed urinating on their tarsal glands. It is believed that does identify their fawns through unique tarsal gland odors. Interestingly, bucks will often smell and lick the tarsal glands of an estrous doe as a prelude to mounting. Clearly, the tarsal plays a critical role in many aspects of whitetail communication, reproduction and survival.

What Causes the “Rutting Odor?”

If you asked hunters what causes the distinctive “Eau de rutting buck”, most would say it’s a substance produced by the gland itself. The truth, however, is far more interesting and complex. Each hair on the tarsal gland is associated with a structure called a sebaceous gland that secretes a fatty material which coats the hairs. The hairs themselves contain scales to provide greater surface area for holding the fatty material. However, it’s not this material itself that gives the gland its strong musky odor. Rather, the smell comes from urine deposited on the tarsal gland during rub-urination.

However, any observant hunter has noticed that the tarsal gland smells nothing like the smell of fresh urine. So where does this stink come from? The warm, moist, nutrient-rich tarsal glands provide a perfect environment for the growth of numerous species of bacteria. As the urine runs over the tarsal hairs, the fatty material on the hairs selects out some of the fat-soluble compounds from the urine and holds them on the hair. The bacteria on the gland then change these materials to produce the gland’s characteristic smell. Retaining the odor requires daily ‘recharging’ of the gland with urine. So, the tarsal gland functions more like a scent wick than an actual scent-producing gland.


Since bucks urinate on their tarsal glands more frequently during the breeding season, it was originally believed that the fat-secreting structures associated with the hairs would become more active during this time as well. Instead, research has confirmed that the activity of these glands does not change during the year, and that there is no difference in activity between males and females. These results indicate that it is not a change in gland activity that causes a change in the smell of the tarsal gland. Instead, the change in smell (and color) comes from a change in the frequency of rub-urination, and perhaps from a change in some components of the deer’s urine.

Research has identified more than 100 unique compounds associated with the tarsal tuft on male deer. Of these, 12 occurred in greater concentrations on dominant animals than on subordinates. Many of these were not observed in fresh urine, which emphasizes the role of bacteria in converting urinary compounds into socially-important odors.

In addition to these compounds, there also are several dozen species of bacteria which commonly inhabit the tarsal gland. Importantly, the species of bacteria often differ among individual deer. It’s these different bacterial populations that ultimately provide each deer with its own unique scent, a process similar to how human underarm odor is produced. It is important to note that the types of bacteria on the tarsal include some potential human pathogens, such as Staphylococcus, Streptococcus and Listeria, among others. So, be sure to wash your hands after handling a deer’s tarsal gland!


Tarsal Glands for Hunting?

Given what we know about this fascinating gland, can a fresh tarsal gland from a buck be a useful hunting tool? Absolutely – especially if used in the appropriate context and at the correct time. By placing a tarsal above or in a scrape site, or using it as a drag, you may signal a challenge to bucks in the area. If one buck thinks another buck is trying to invade his ‘turf’, he may return to the scrape more often, or follow the scent trail of the drag.

Timing of tarsal gland use also is critical. Tarsal scent is generally most effective during the 2 to 3 weeks prior to the peak of the rut when scraping activity is highest. In contrast, it likely would be less effective during the peak of the rut when most bucks are tending does. A buck tending a doe is less likely to investigate the scent of an unknown intruder. In fact, he may actually direct the doe to another area to avoid a confrontation and the possibility of losing his prize!

If you don’t have access to fresh tarsal glands, several companies now sell tarsal glands, or at least tarsal scent collected from rutting bucks. So, armed with this latest Whitetail Science, you may want to consider incorporating the use of tarsal glands (or tarsal scent) into your hunting approach this fall.

Brian Murphy is a wildlife biologist and CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association (www.QDMA.com). He also has been an avid bowhunter for the past 30 years. Dr. Karl V. Miller is a professor of wildlife biology at the University of Georgia and among North America’s leading researchers and authorities on white-tailed deer.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Hobie MirageDrive 360 Kayak Propulsion: Amazing Control and Power

Hobie MirageDrive 360 Kayak Propulsion: Amazing Control and Power

The Hobie MirageDrive 360 pedal propulsion system is the pinnacle of kayak control with more efficient fin designs, glide technology and allows the boat to be moved in any direction.

Action and Power Ratings- How to Choose the Right Bass Rod

Action and Power Ratings- How to Choose the Right Bass Rod

Most fishing rods feature both an action and a power rating, but what do those ratings mean and how do you use them to select the right rod for different scenarios? In this video, outdoor writer and tackle specialist Shane Beilue breaks down the difference between a rod blank’s action and power and discusses what the various ratings of each mean.

Understanding Reel Retrieve Ratios and How it Affects Lure Presentations

Understanding Reel Retrieve Ratios and How it Affects Lure Presentations

Increase a lure’s effectiveness by pairing it with the ideal reel speed.

Catch More Bass on a Jerkbait in the Cooler Months

Catch More Bass on a Jerkbait in the Cooler Months

This one simple trick will trigger more bass strikes on a jerkbait during the fall months.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Simplify breakfast or brunch for a crowd by making this savory venison chorizo quiche recipe.Southwestern Venison Chorizo Quiche Recipe Wild Game

Southwestern Venison Chorizo Quiche Recipe

Allie Doran - October 30, 2020

Simplify breakfast or brunch for a crowd by making this savory venison chorizo quiche recipe.

Get ready to braise ground venison with all the traditional chili ingredients, directly on the grill, for a smokin' hot take on this comfort food classic.Smoked Venison Chili Recipe Wild Game

Smoked Venison Chili Recipe

Eva Shockey - October 16, 2020

Get ready to braise ground venison with all the traditional chili ingredients, directly on the...

Dozens of different bait types are commonly used for catfish, including these great options.12 Great Catfish Baits Catfish

12 Great Catfish Baits

Jeff Samsel

Dozens of different bait types are commonly used for catfish, including these great options.

Want to test the outer limits of your shooting skill? You'll need a cartridge that lives up to the expectations demanded at ranges up to and beyond 500, 600 or even 1,000 yards. Try these different loads until you find the one that thumps steel at long ranges consistently.10 Best Long-Range Rifle Cartridges Ever Made Ammo

10 Best Long-Range Rifle Cartridges Ever Made

David Hart - January 14, 2015

Want to test the outer limits of your shooting skill? You'll need a cartridge that lives up to...

See More Trending Articles

More Stories

Where and how some of the state's best archery bucks were killed last season.Oklahoma's Big Archery Bucks of 2018 Whitetail

Oklahoma's Big Archery Bucks of 2018

Kelly Bostian

Where and how some of the state's best archery bucks were killed last season.

From a world-record crappie to the best gear of the year, these hunting and fishing articles were most popular with our readers.Game & Fish's Top 10 Stories of 2018 Stories

Game & Fish's Top 10 Stories of 2018

G&F Online Staff - December 24, 2018

From a world-record crappie to the best gear of the year, these hunting and fishing articles...

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to re-examine many cherished traditions, but hunting remains an essential activity.Perspective: Why We Hunt Stories

Perspective: Why We Hunt

Andrew McKean - August 12, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to re-examine many cherished traditions, but hunting...

See More Stories

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now