By: Shawny Eckert
In the autumn, many nature lovers search the woods in the hopes of being the lucky one to find a pair of antlers that have been dropped by a deer or a moose. However, have you ever heard of anyone finding a pair of mountain goat horns? No! This is because deer and moose have antlers whereas goats have horns. Well, what is the difference you may ask? Horns and antlers can look similar, and they serve a similar function. However, the biology of the two are very different.
Only males of the Cervidae family, which includes all species of deer, moose, and elk, grow antlers. Antlers are used to fight other males for mating rights with females, and the males with the biggest antlers impress the ladies the most! It takes a lot of energy to grow these large antlers, so the females know that these particular males have been successful that year and have some great genes to pass on.
Antlers are made of bone and are grown as an extension of the animal’s skull. A structure called a “Pedicle” supports the antlers when they begin to grow in the spring. These new antlers are covered in a soft velvet that supplies blood and nutrients to the developing bone. When the antlers are done growing, the velvet dies and the deer will rub it off against trees. This action also serves to shine and sharpen the rack (which looks intimidating to the males and mighty fine to the females)! In the winter, certain hormones will stop flowing, which loosens the connection between the pedicle and the antler, and off the antlers come.
One interesting thing to note about these fallen antlers is that many smaller mammals such as mice or squirrels will chew on them to get the calcium they need!
Horns are found on members of the Bovidae family, which includes species such as cows, sheep and goats. They differ from antlers because generally, both males and females have horns and they will continue to grow throughout the animal’s life. Males use their horns in fights during breeding season whereas females use them more as a defensive tool. Horns have a bone interior covered by an exterior sheath grown by specialized hair follicles and made of keratin. This is a very similar material to human fingernails!
Since horns stay with the animal its entire life, you can age an animal by the number of growth rings on its horns, just like you can age a tree in the same way!