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14 May 2013

There is some confusion among many people about the difference between horns and antlers (Afrikaans: horings and geweie). Antlers are a characteristic of ungulates such as the elk, deer and musk deer and they are normally shed annually to re-grow in the next year. However, the various types of musk deer and the Chinese water deer Hydropotes inermis of China and Korea have tusks instead of antlers, while the muntjac species of the genus Muntiacus have small tusks and small antlers. The Chinese water deer is sometimes known as the vampire deer. However, horns occur in the bovid ungulates such as the antelopes and are permanent structures. They also differ from the horns of the rhinoceroses and giraffes.


Antlers differ totally from horns in their morphology and origin. An antler grows from a pedicle on the skull. While it is still growing an antler is covered with a highly vascular skin which is known as velvet and has been prized for medicinal use and as a nutritional supplement for more than 2000 years in some Asian countries. The velvet supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone core. The 50 kg or so of calcium that is required for a large antler to grow per year is primarily obtained from the rib cage. Once an antler has grown to its full size, it loses its velvet and the bone dies to become a mature antler. Eventually the antler is shed annually in most but not all cervids but because it is rich in calcium it is gnawed by rodents for it. Except for the red deer Cervus elaphus which also occurs naturally in the extreme north-western part of Africa there are no indigenous ungulates with antlers in Africa.

The word horn is Old English of Germanic origin. Eotragus which occurred some 18 million years ago in Europe and Pakistan is the earliest known bovid fossil with clear horn cores. Three critical events lead to the development of horns: the appearance of an embryonic horn base or anlage; the appearance of a detached but palpable bud or os cornu, and the development of an attached horn core bud. Horn-forming structures are already found in the embryo. After fusion of the anlage and the os cornu to the frontal bone of the skull, the bony horn core starts to develop and attaches the horn seamlessly to the skull. A horn consists of an inner core which is covered by a horny sheath which is a special development of the outer skin layer. They grow continuously throughout the life of an animal and growth in the core replaces wear of the outer sheath. In many bovids both sexes have horns which is different from ungulates with antlers where the females of only a few species carry antlers.

Horns played a major role in ancient cultures and mythology where many gods are portrayed with horns. In ancient Egypt the goddess Hathor is depicted as a cow goddess with a sun between the horns, while the goddess Bat is portrayed with a human face but with the horns and ears of a cow. The god Moloch of Canaan was often depicted as a bull, while the god Ammon in Greece had the horns of a ram. In Africa, the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria worship a horned god Ikenga who symbolizes honest achievement. The sign of the horns in which the index and little fingers are extended with the middle and ring finger being held down by the thumb is used in many cultures to summon supernatural powers to ward off bad luck.

The length of the horns is used to measure trophy quality in antelopes. While the females carry horns more often than female cervids carry antlers, the horns of the males are usually more robust and longer than those of the females and consequently are regarded as being better trophies. One exception is the different species of Oryx, such as the gemsbok, in which the horns of a cow are more slender but also considerably longer than those of a bull.


Although rhinoceroses are also said to have horns, these horns are actually modified skin without horn cores. Contrary to common belief the horns are not compressed hair but are similar in structure to the bills of cockatoos, the beaks of turtles and the hooves of horses and zebras. In the horn centre there is a dense deposit of calcium, which strengthens the horn, and one of melanin to protect the horn from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Only the soft outer sheath is worn away.

The horns of a rhinoceros have no medicinal properties but are still being used for it in the East. They are also used for the handles of curved daggers, known as jambiya in Yemen. In China the ornamental use of rhinoceros horn dates to the 7th Century while it is also used in traditional Chinese medicine and to chase out devils but not as an aphrodisiac as is often believed. The use of rhinoceros horn for its ability to purify water dates back thousands of years in Greek mythology while the Persians of the 5th Century used it to detect poisoned liquids, a belief which persisted until the early 19th Century in the royal courts of Europe.

The horns of the giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis are only bony appendages or growths that are covered with skin and hair and are formed from soft cartilaginous material that consolidates into hard bone. The horns of the cows are smaller than those of the bulls and have a tuft of hair on the top whereas those of the bull are bald. There is no evidence that the skin covering the horns differs from that covering the skull.



Anon 2012. Antler. http://www.//en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Antler&oldid=506989162

Anon 2012. Antelope http://www.libraryindex.com/encyclopedia/pages/covwzngbt9/antelope-horns-antelopes-found.html

Anon 2012. Rhinoceros horn use: fact and fiction. Nature. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/rhinoceros/rhino-horn-use-fact-vs-fiction

Anon 2012. Sign of horns. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=sign_of_the_horns&oldid=514271965

Anon 2012. Horned deity. http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Horned_deity

Davis, E B, K A Brakora and A H Lee 2011. Evolution of ruminant headgear. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/06/29/rspb20110938.

article by Prof J du P Bothma


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