Spinning tales about antlers, horns and tusks


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Antlers, horns and tusks are essential animal appendages. They enable dominance, defense, courtship displays, foraging or moving objects. In the deer family (cervids) — deer, caribou (reindeer), elk, and moose — nature provides antlers (racks). Pairs of bony, branched, frontal-skull outgrowths appear in most males, but female reindeer (caribou) also are equipped. Most impressive are moose antlers which weigh up to 40 pounds; these flattened antlers seemingly enhance hearing.

Due to castration, domesticated sleigh-pulling reindeer exhibit antlers similar to females. Incidentally, other female species with high testosterone levels occasionally develop antlers. Yearly, antlers are grown and shed. The growth precedes the rut (breeding season in the fall). Vascular skin, namely velvet, covers and nourishes the expanding racks. When antlers reach full size, velvet dies — in part removed as the animal rubs against vegetation which stains the antlers into a wooden look. The mature antler is dead bone. In the prime years, the rack annually grows larger but decreases in old age.

After the rut, antlers are shed from late autumn to summer depending on variables, such as location and species. Expectant female reindeer shed later because antlers offer protection and are useful to scrape snow to uncover nourishing vegetation. Discarded racks provide calcium for small mammals in the wild.

Horns occur in bovids, including sheep, goat, bison and domesticated cattle. In many species, only males possess horns. However, large conspicuous females need them for combat. Some smaller females are hornless since they hide to avoid altercations.

From the frontals, horns protrude typically in a pair of a core of live bone, with a keratinous sheath, similar to fingernails. Curved or spiraled, horns often display ridges and fluting. Basically permanent, they ordinarily grow an entire lifetime. Yet, the pronghorn, a distant cervid and bovid relative, is the only animal to flaunt branched horns (not antlers) and to shed and regrow its horn sheath yearly.

To avoid injury, domesticated cattle are polled (dehorned) through breeding or by man. The polled trait is more prevalent in beef breeds. Therefore, dairy cows are commonly dehorned around a week old.

Horn-like growths occur in humans. Cutaneous (relating to the skin) horns are common in the elderly; they often grow in sun-exposed areas, like the face and hands.

Unique in animals is the male Jackson’s chameleon with its three quasi horns, resembling a triceratops.

Tusks produce ivory and appear in such mammals as the walrus, warthog, wild pig and elephant. Normally, both sexes have tusks, but the males’ are larger. They are generally in pairs (but not always) and mostly curved, elongated, continuously-growing canine teeth. In elephants, they are overgrown incisors.

Deer ancestors were small and displayed tusks as well as antlers. Today, tusks still bedeck some deer. The male water deer has prominent tusks and lacks antlers, and the male muntjac deer has visible tusks and short antlers. Supposedly, elks have remnants of tusks.

Good or bad, utilization of animal extensions endures. Antlers hang as trophies or chandeliers, but they also are used in research. Conceivably, studies in the regeneration of antlers will lead to restoration of damaged human nerves.

Horns were notably used by primitive people for tools. They are still in demand for products, such as china, fertilizer, or shofars — ancient Hebrew musical instruments from rams’ horns.

But poaching elephants to obtain tusks for ivory is endangering this mammal. Appropriately, the piano industry mainly discontinued ivory keys after 1970.

Hopefully, animal conservation will prosper and only thriving species will be pursued and in selected seasons.