Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
Nature Bulletins
Newton Home Page

Introduction and Instructions

Search Engine

Table of Contents



Horns and Antlers
Nature Bulletin No. 730   November 2, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

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 structures.

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.

Beginning 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.

To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Hosted by NEWTON

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Sponsered by Argonne National Labs