Antlers and horns

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11097805712111.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The antlers of this white-tailed deer are "in velvet."’);

Many individuals believe the terms horn and antler are synonymous, but there are actually several types of horns and antlers found among mammals.

True horns are found in ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and goats and are hollow sheaths composed of a protein named keratin (the same material of which nails, claws, and hooves are made). This sheath surrounds a core of bone arising from the skull. Horns are possessed by both sexes and are not normally shed. They are not branched, although they may be considerably curved as in the wild sheep and goat.

The horns of the Western pronghorn antelope are unique in that they are shed at the end of each breeding season. But, unlike the shedding of deer antlers, the new horn replaces the old by growing up inside and pushing off the outer sheath.

Antlers are the exclusive property of the members of the deer family (deer, elk, moose, caribou and others). Some find it difficult to believe that the antlers of deer are shed and regrown each year, but this odd and seemingly wasteful practice is an established fact. The shedding and regrowth might not be so remarkable if the antlers were only a few inches in length, but the antlers of a mature elk may be more than 5 feet long, and those of a moose may have a spread of more than 6 feet. The extinct Irish elk, of which many complete fossilized skeletons exist, had an antler spread of more than 9 feet and presumably shed and regrew these enormous structures each year.

Antlers are composed entirely of bone when mature, but they are covered with skin while they are growing, and a deer with skin adhering to his antlers is said to be “in velvet.” Antlers are found only in male deer, and their development, growth, and shedding is controlled by the level of the male sex hormone testosterone in the animal’s body at a given time.

Just before a set of antlers is shed in early winter, a portion of the antler shaft near the head becomes weakened by the destruction and absorption of the bony material. The antlers are eventually broken off at this weakened spot with no loss of blood and apparently without pain. The stumps of the antlers that remain become covered with skin, and it is from these vestiges that new growth begins in the spring.

The growth of the new antler is unbelievably rapid. Observations have revealed that they may grow as much as one-third to one-half inch each day. When the antlers are mature, the velvet drops off in strips, leaving a solid, bony, sharp-tipped antler.

The keratin-fiber horn is another type of structure and is characteristic of the various species of rhinoceroses found in Africa and Asia. Thousands of hair-like, horny, keratin fibers arise from an outgrowth of the skull and are tightly cemented together to form a single large horn. This type of horn is not routinely shed, but it will be replaced if damaged.

The widespread belief that rhinoceros horn has medicinal, if not magical, qualities has threatened the existence of this huge, magnificent mammal. Poachers have practically eliminated this animal from parts of its former range.

A large rhinoceros horn may bring as much as $5,000 in an Oriental market. Legend has it that a cup made from such a horn will purify a poisonous drink, and some believe it will react and detect a toxic substance that has been added to the drink. Powdered rhinoceros horn is mixed with other concoctions by Asian apothecaries and is prescribed for a range of maladies. The powdered material is reputed to be a powerful aphrodisiac and to be much in demand by potentates and impotentates alike.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!