Saturday, February 13, 2016

What are Horns and Antlers?

What are Horns and Antlers? 

                              A common mistake made when speaking of protrusions coming out of the heads of animals is mistaking antlers and horns.  While the two can be very similar in some aspects, they are also very different.  When it comes right down to the bony details, it can actually be very easy to tell them apart.  And why horns and antlers are even there in the first place is fascinating.  First of all, let's talk about how to tell these two body parts a part.

Similarities of Horns and Antlers

                              First: what are horns and antlers? As stated before, they are protrusions coming from the top of an animal's head. Both horns and antlers help protect the animal. They're often used for fighting -- to fight for anything from dominance, to territory -- and also to attract potential mates. Have you ever seen a ram, for instance, head butt another ram with its horns? This is a learned behavior, and is carried over from when sheep and rams ran in the wild. (1)  Rams use their big, strong horns to fight for dominance -- to see who is most fit to lead to lead their herd. (2)

                              Another similar trait about both Antlers and Horns is that they're both made bone. This makes them strong, and able to withstand all the fighting they do.

Differences of Horns and Antlers

                              Horns and antlers may have some things in common, but they are much, much different. Their differences start from how they grow on the animal. Horns start to grow soon after the animal is born, and they continue to grow with the animal throughout its lifetime! Horns have a bony structure underneath, and on top, they are covered by something called a sheath. This sheath is made up of something called keratin. Keratin is what your fingernails and even your hair is made out of! (3)  Horns do not shed at all. They're stuck their on the animal's head permanently -- forever. Their whole lives. Horns also, usually, don't have any branching or forking. For instance, a tree has branches all over, coming from its trunk. Antlers are the same way. But most horns don't have anything resembling any kind of branch. As with every rule, though, there is always an exception. The Pronghorn Sheep (4) has horns, but they also do fork out the tiniest bit! You can see examples in the pictures below! (5,6)

(Horns on a Ram)
(Horns on a Pronghorn Sheep)

                              Antlers, on the other hand, or ...should I say, the other head? Antlers don't have a protective covering at all. It's just the bone. Throughout the animal's lifetime, the antlers actually fall off, or shed, and come back! Could you imagine part of your body falling off? What if your ear were to fall off and then grow back later? When the antlers shed off, they actually grow back bigger and even stronger than they were before. These antlers also fork or they branch off, like mentioned before. You can see the difference between antlers that fork, and antlers that branch down below! (7,8)

(Antlers on a mule deer that fork)

(Antlers on a whitetail deer that branch)

Fun Facts about Horns and Antlers!

  • Did you know that Rhinos are the only mammal that has a horn on its nose! (9)
  • Did  you know that Giraffes have horns, but their horns don't have a keratin sheath like other animals with horns! Instead, their horns are covered by a thin layer of hair. (9)
  • Did you know that Caribou are the only animal species where both the male and female have antlers? (9)

  • 1) (2015, Sep 21) Sheep 101: head butting by rams
    2) Alina Bradford, (2014, July 31) Rams: Facts About Male Bighorn Sheep: LiveScience
    3) Emily Graslie (2013, Mar 18) Horns vs. Antlers - The Brain Scoop
    4) Kara Kovalchik (2014, Mar 6) What's the Difference Between Antlers and Horns? - Mental Floss Website
    5) Picture of Ram provided by
    6) Picture of Pronghorn Sheep provided by
    7) Picture of Mule Deer provided by
    8) Picture of Whitetail Deer provided by
    9) (2015)

    Feb 13, 2016 - Written by Mariah Loeber