Horns and Antlers
Nature Bulletin No. 730 November 2, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
HORNS AND ANTLERS
A great many large grazing or browsing animals, the ones which have
cloven hoofs and chew their cud, are armed with either horns or
antlers. These weapons are used for defense against the attacks of
bloodthirsty enemies and in duels between males for possession of a
female or a harem of females. Although both horns and antlers are
borne on the head and have similar uses, they are very different
Most of the world's cattle, sheep and goats -- both wild and
domesticated -- have horns. In North America the only living horn-
bearers are those noble beasts, the bison (usually called buffalo), the
musk ox, the Rocky Mountain goat and the bighorn sheep.
Horns, in contrast to antlers, are unbranched. They are hollow horny
sheaths enclosing pointed bony cores that arise from the front of the
skull. These sheaths are made of keratin, the same substance as our
fingernails. They continue to grow throughout the life of the animal
and are never shed. Horns are commonly found in both sexes of a
species and are always in pairs. The unicorn, that one-horned creature
pictured in the British royal coat of arms is strictly mythological.
Antlers are the crowning glory of the males of the deer family. In this
continent they are borne by the bull moose, the bull elk or wapiti, and
the bucks of the whitetail, blacktail and mule deer. In the caribou and
reindeer of the far north, both sexes have antlers. The latter is a
domesticated Old World caribou brought from Siberia to Alaska about
70 years ago.
Amazingly, the solid bony antlers of all these are shed each year. For
example, the whitetail buck drops his in midwinter or early spring.
Soon, a new pair begins to form as furry knobs that rapidly expand
into the curving and branching shape of the mature structures. During
this growth period, the antlers are soft, covered with a velvety skin,
have a rich blood supply, and are quite sensitive. By late summer the
blood supply stops and the "velvet" begins to dry up and peel off. Then
his antlers harden into bone which he polishes by rubbing against trees
and branches -- probably because they itch.
Although the bucks are timid while their antlers are growing, they
become ill-tempered with the approach of the mating season in late
autumn. There are fierce fights between them for possession of the
does. These battles are seldom fatal but sometimes their antlers
become tightly locked together and both animals starve to death.
Contrary to common belief, the number of points on a deer's antlers do
not tell its age. Beginning with a pair of simple "spikes" in its first
year, the number increases until the fifth year with up to twelve points.
With advancing age, fewer and fewer points develop until an old buck
may have only simple spikes again.
Mounted heads of animals with unusually large, symmetrical horns or
antlers are the prized possessions of big game hunters. One of the most
coveted trophies is the bighorn ram with his massive curling horns.
The shovel-like antlers of a record moose have a spread of six feet or
more and weigh over sixty pounds. The extinct Irish elk had the
largest antlers known -- over eleven feet from tip to tip.
with prehistoric man, horns and antlers have had many
uses. Eskimos shaped spoons and dippers from musk ox horns. Indians
made hunting bows from the bighorn, garden tools from elk antlers,
and spear points from deer. Powder horns for muzzle-loading guns
came from cows and the ancient shofar, or ram's horn, is still blown in
Jewish religious rites. In the wild, shed antlers are soon eaten by
gnawing mice and other rodents.
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Update: June 2012