Bad Teeth: The Strangest Deer Jawbones in QDMA’s Collection

Even before he founded QDMA 30 years ago, Joe Hamilton of South Carolina knew the importance of collecting jawbones from harvested deer and estimating their age based on tooth replacement and wear patterns. Over his career as a wildlife biologist, Joe has aged tens of thousands of deer jawbones, and whenever he encountered a jawbone that strayed from “normal,” he saved it. This article provides a tour through a few of the weirdest jawbones in Joe’s and QDMA’s collection. Whenever you’re examining jawbones this season, keep an eye out for whitetails with bad teeth.

Start your tour with a look at a normal, healthy lower jawbone from a whitetail so you know what deer teeth should look like.

The lower jawbone of a healthy adult whitetail contains six molars, seen here from the front pre-molars (left) to the larger molars in the rear of the mouth (right). The first three pre-molars are temporary when the deer is born and replaced by permanent pre-molars at around 18 months of age. The permanent molars all become worn down and flatter as the deer ages.
Traffic jams are among the more common causes of problems in Joe’s bad teeth collection, especially when a temporary pre-molar refuses to be pushed out or extra sets of permanent molars grow into the space where only one set can fit. This deer had double sets of molars in the third position from the front. See the banner image at the top of this page, also.
Your wisdom is as good as ours when it comes to guessing what caused the bone deformity seen above (in a deer with a significant amount of tooth wear) or the significant bone erosion seen below. Deer are susceptible to abscessed teeth, infections, tumors and cancer just like people are, and one of these options might explain these cases.

Hole-in-the-jaw would have been a good name for this deer, as it was living with a window in the front end of its grotesquely deformed jawbone. Whether this was caused by a bullet, an abscess, or some other factor is not known.
String and a doorknob would have been useful to these deer, which would have helped remove stubborn temporary teeth that didn’t want to let go. They caused unusual wear and apparently (on the top) tooth decay and infection.
Birth defects are a rare cause of tooth problems, as the deer above only had one of three pre-molars, including a gap in the lineup where there weren’t even sockets for the two missing teeth. Wear on the four teeth indicates this deer survived to adulthood. As for the train-wreck of a mouth below, we don’t even have a guess – but it probably wasn’t fun to chew.

The root of this strange deformity is clear, because the evidence is visible: a lead fragment from a bullet, which wrecked part of the left jaw before lodging in the right. The deer survived and lived long enough for the injury to heal and cause unusually sloped wear patterns on the left molars (above). QDMA does not support head shots on deer under any circumstances, and this jaw is an example of the reason why: A small error can lead to devastating but non-fatal wounds.
This old doe was killed in Georgia by Bradley Janes, who sent the extremely worn teeth to QDMA. Several of the molars are worn down to the gumline and even beyond. We extracted two incisors and sent them to Matson’s Laboratory in Montana for cementum annuli analysis. Though the incisors were also worn to nubs and earned a certainty grade of “B” from Matson’s, the lab estimated the wild doe’s age at 14 to 16 years.

Finally, in 2019 I came across my own addition to this collection of deer in need of dentistry. My dad killed a mature buck on our family farm in Georgia, and I cleaned the jawbones for Dad to display with the mount (I believe age is just as much a part of a hunt story as antlers). When I boiled and cleaned them, I noticed the buck had an enormous abscess in his left jaw. The infection was so bad and had been there so long that the battle between bacteria and the buck’s immune system had destroyed part of the bone, leaving a hole through both sides of the jaw and exposing the roots of the buck’s molars. The pain of such an untreated infection would likely put you and me out of action, yet this buck was chasing does and participating in the rut when Dad shot him.

Yet another example of the toughness and resilience of whitetails. Despite injuries and afflictions like those you saw here, they survive and keep going. It’s a good idea to pull a jawbone from every deer you harvest so you can estimate age, but you also never know when you might add your own strange jawbone to your collection of outdoor curiosities.


About Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of the National Deer Association, and he is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.