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Horn vs Antler

By Jack Ashby, on 11 July 2013

Bone of contention - is this horn or is this antler? It's horn.

Bone of contention – is this horn or is this antler?
Erm… It’s horn.

There are a few things that get certain zoologists wound up. I’m not talking about extinction and Jeremy Clarkson, I’m talking about relatively meaningless* distinctions that we like to pick up on when people land on the wrong side of  an invisible dichotomy. You can get blood boiling by referring to sabre-toothed “tigers” rather than “cats”; failing to say “non-avian” when referring to extinction of dinosaurs; or describing apes as monkeys (actually that’s technically true as apes evolved from monkeys and the rules of taxonomy therefore require apes to be monkeys). Among such picked-nits is the difference between horns and antlers. If only more people would remember this then fewer zoologists would die prematurely of high blood pressure…


Antlers - only on deer - are made of bone, have pedicles and branch

Antlers – only on deer – are made of bone, have pedicles and branch

This is the easy bit. ONLY deer have antlers. If it isn’t a deer it doesn’t have antlers.  If it is a deer it doesn’t have horns.
Also, if it’s at all branched, it’s an antler (and therefore on a deer)**
Antlers are made entirely of bone: they are outgrowths of a nob on the frontal bone called a pedicle. Only male deer have antlers*** – they are used for fighting over mates. Deer grow their antlers every year in preparation for the breeding season, and then shed them once it’s over. They are often said to be the fastest growing bones in the animal kingdom. This is made possible by a highly vascularised tissue called velvet which covers them while they grow and falls off in rotting strips when they’re ready. The giant deer, when it was alive, would grow and shed my body weight in antler every year (incidentally, the giant deer’s scientific name Megaloceros means “giant horn” which is clearly nonsense).


Horn has a horny sheeth and a bony centre

Horn has a horny sheeth and a bony centre

This is a lot more complicated as loads of animals have horns (see below) – it’s a term used to describe many pointy things on animals heads (excluding noses and antlers) but most of the confusion is with the mammals. Essentially, if it isn’t on a deer, it’s a horn (and remember, if it is on a deer, it’s an antler).
Bovids are the main horny mammals – sheep, cattle and antelope. Their horns have a bony centre which is then covered in something us zoologists technically describe as horn. This can cause some confusion as “horn” can be used to describe the whole pointy thing, and the sheath of keratin that is on the outside of it. As such, bovid horns are part of the skeleton AND part of the skin.
Keratin is a protein which is used to build fingernails, claws, hair, beaks, mammal horn, bird and reptile scales and whale baleen. Handy stuff.
Horns are not shed and tend to grow throughout an animal’s life****. Depending on the species, both boys and girls can have them, though often the girls’ horns are smaller.
The other famously horny mammals are the rhinos. Rhino horn does not have a bony core – it’s just solid keratin growing from the skin. Unless you have horns, keratin has no medicinal or magical powers. The ill-informed think it cures all manner of ills, but all such beliefs do is drive some of the largest living mammals to extinction, make scumbags rich and potentially poison the ignorant.

Occasionally a person may refer to the things growing out of a giraffe’s head as “horns”. This will also rile the pedantic zoologist. Giraffes have ossicones. These are bony protuberances, much like a deer’s pedicle (but unlike antlers or horns), but they remain covered in skin and fur.

I could end there with the hope that some zoologists’ lives have been saved, but the keen can read on about the horns of ten non-mammals with horns…

1) Horned frogs have protuberances of the skull, made of bone and covered in skin.
2) Horny toad is another name for the horned lizard
3) Horned lizards have bovid-like horns, in that the horns have bony cores covered in keratin (scales).
4) Horned viper just have enlarged scales.
5) Rhinoceros beetles have a massive outgrowth of their carapace.
6) Stag beetles have massive mouthparts which look like antlers (not horns).
7) Hornbills have a huge casque made of bone (and covered in skin)
8) Two horned cow fish have bones covered in skin
9) Triceratops (and other horny dinos) have bones covered in keratin, like a cow.
10) Narwhals***** have a massive incisor.

*not meaningless.
** Exception: prongorn horns are branched (hence the prong), but pronghorns are not deer.
***Exception: female reindeer also have antlers (but not horns)
****Exception: pronghorns’ horns grow from the end if a pedicle and are shed. They are also referred to as American antelope, but they aren’t antelope (because they shed their horns) and belong to a family all of their own.
*****Ok, that’s not a non-mammal

Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology.

18 Responses to “Horn vs Antler”

  • 1
    Daniel Morse wrote on 11 July 2013:

    Don’t think we didn’t notice that you cheated on no. 2 as well as no. 10. ;o)

  • 2
    Jack Ashby wrote on 11 July 2013:

    Quite right Daniel – glad to hear from another pedant.
    How about 11) the horned owl, whose horns are just fluffy feathers? It barely deserves to call them horns.

  • 3
    Daniel Morse wrote on 11 July 2013:

    I’ll see your horned owl and raise you a horned lark.
    Even the botanists are at it: Cucumis metuliferus, the horned melon, a.k.a. the African horned cucumber!

  • 4
    QRatorPholi wrote on 11 July 2013:

    Well written Jack. Informative and witty. But what about the devil’s horns? Or are they antlers or ossicones?

  • 5
    Jack Ashby wrote on 11 July 2013:

    Good question. Typically they are depicted non-branching, and I’ve never seen him without them (so one can assume they aren’t shed) so they’re not antlers. If they were covered in skin they would be ossicones; if it’s keratin then more bovid-like horns. We don’t have a specimen in the Grant so I’d have to do more research to answer fully.

  • 6
    Daniel Morse wrote on 11 July 2013:

    Would it be too pedantic to take issue with no. 10 for another reason as well? I was curious about whether the narwhal’s erupted WMD was an incisor or a canine. The most recent study I can find indicates that in fact it’s a canine, due to its growth within the maxillary bone instead of the pre-maxillary.

  • 7
    Jack Ashby wrote on 11 July 2013:

    Not at all pedantic Daniel – it seems the thinking* on this has indeed changed lately – narwhal’s are now considered to have canines. Thanks for that. Now to change some labels…

    *Nweeia, M. T., Eichmiller, F. C., Hauschka, P. V., Tyler, E., Mead, J. G., Potter, C. W., Angnatsiak, D. P., Richard, P. R., Orr, J. R. and Black, S. R. (2012), Vestigial Tooth Anatomy and Tusk Nomenclature for Monodon Monoceros. Anat Rec, 295: 1006–1016. doi: 10.1002/ar.22449

  • 8
    Jeremy wrote on 18 July 2013:

    whether made from keratin or bone, the nomenclature is used interchangeably by most laypeople, although I’ve never heard of “antlers” being used to describe anything non-branched

  • 9
    Specimen of the Week: Week 106 | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 21 October 2013:

    […] can tell a boy from a girl without getting too personal. The male okapis have two small osteocones (they look like horns) on the top of the head, whilst the females go without. Females are also slightly taller than […]

  • 10
    Chris King wrote on 12 February 2014:

    A great read, thank you, really informative and witty. I don’t think I’ve ever mixed up antlers and horns, but now at least I know what’s behind the tradition.
    If the devil got a place in the comments, I would also like to add an oddity, the celtic god Cernunnos, who is always depicted with antlers and never without them, even though antlers should be shed annually. We might have a problem here… 😀
    (It is true though that Cernunnos goes through some rebirth circles in the mythology, it might coincide with the normal period of antler shedding of gods)

  • 11
    Jack Ashby wrote on 12 February 2014:

    Interesting! And I assume that the “Cern” bit has its etymology from “horn”, which is obviously not right, as Cernunnos has antlers.

  • 12
    Lulu Barnhill wrote on 17 June 2014:

    i have found a horn that has been hollowed out inside but has natural scales on the outside. I think they are keratin(i think it’s called), like nails, claws, beaks are made of. what creature do you think it came from? i can send pictures of it if interested.

  • 13
    Jack Ashby wrote on 17 June 2014:

    Thanks Lulu.
    Horns are naturally hollow as the keratin part which surrounds the bony core is just a horny sheath, which can come off after death. The scaly appearance could be a sympton of the way it is degrading – I’ve seen this before – but do send in a picture to zoology.museum@ucl.ac.uk and we’ll have a go at identifying the species.

  • 14
    Specimen of the Week 273: The Narwhal Tusk | UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 6 January 2017:

    […] in some way for the ability to reproduce. Male deer have antlers; male antelope have horns (I wrote a blog about the distinction); male seahorses have pouches; male gorillas are giant and male peacocks have crazy tails all […]

  • 15
    V.C. Wald wrote on 22 November 2018:

    I’m seeking more detailed information about the phenomenon of female deer growing under-formed antlers in their early adulthood. Imagine my surprise when I learned that female elk (Cervus canadensis) sometimes grow “spike” antlers in their first adult spring. Apparently this is due to hormonal immaturity, i.e., an imbalance of male-female hormones. It’s common, at least in our area (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem).

  • 16
    Jake wrote on 29 March 2020:

    hi my name is Jake I was wondering if I could use this pic for a YouTube video?

  • 17
    Lisa Randisi wrote on 15 April 2020:

    Hello Jake! Thanks for asking. To get permission to use the image, please email museums@ucl.ac.uk – we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

  • 18
    Barbara E Corson wrote on 29 August 2021:

    I loved this! I’m not a zoologist but a (retired) veterinarian and (current) boviphile. I used to enjoy taking my cow on public outings and more than once heard someone say “you can tell it’s a male because it has antlers” or words to that effect.

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