The Differences Between Antlers and Horns

Distinguishing the Features of Antlers V. Horns

The differences between antlers and horns is greater than you think.

Often when guiding hikes outdoors in the fall we'll see a deer with a nice rack of antlers on their head. One of the common misconceptions is that deer have horns. This post will help you learn the difference between antlers v. horns.

caribou antlers wiki

Caribou with Antlers (Wiki Commons)

Antlers

Antlers are found only on members of the deer or Cervidae family. Members of this family include white-tailed deer, mule deer, black-tailed deer, moose, elk, reindeer, and antelope. Mostly it's the male deer that have antlers. Female caribou are the only female cervids that have antlers.

Antlers form on the heads of deer just before breeding season. These antlers start as two velvet covered spikes with spongy bone inside. As the bone grows, calcifies, and hardens the velvet starts to drop off and shed. A male deer in velvet is called a velvet buck. The deer rubs this velvet on trees and branches, leaving behind the exposed dead bone core which can be quite sharp. The antlers are used by the males to help them fight for females. Each year a buck adds additional spikes on their antlers which is a sign of age and fitness. There are various ways to count the "tines" or spikes on antlers. Usually, if you can hang a wedding ring off the tine then it's counted. An eight point buck would have eight tines between the two antlers.

1280px-Rocky_Mountain_Elk_with_antlers_in_velvet

Elk with velvet covered antlers (Wiki commons)

Antlers fall off at the end of the breeding season, which means that a buck must be healthy enough to grow a set of antlers, fight for a female, possibly not eating for several weeks, and then mate. Thus antler size is an indicator to females of a male's strength and health. Each deer species has its own pattern of antler branching. Some have large scoops (like moose) and some have tines that are sharply branching.

Horns

Horns are found on bison and other bovines, as well as big horn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and goats. The big difference between horns and antlers is that horns have a boney core but they are made up of keratin, which is similar to the materials that your hair and fingernails are made of. Horns are not shed and they grow throughout the life of an animal. The only animal that actually loses its horn annually is the pronghorn antelope. These antelope shed their horns but the boney core of the horn remains behind. Mostly male animals have horns.

Orin Zebest horn picture Flicker common use

Big Horn Sheep with Horns (Orin Zebest Flicker Common use)

Horns can be used for mating purposes, such as fighting for females or defending from predators. Another difference between horns and antlers is that if a horn is damage it will not grow back in. New horn may be added to the base of the horn but the original will remain damaged. If an antler is damaged it will eventually fall off and be replaced by a new whole antler the following season.

Most people think that Rhinoceroses have horns, but in fact their "horn" is not a true horn. It is made of keratin like other horns but it does not have a boney core and does not meet the definition of a horn.

Test Your Knowledge of Horns and Antlers

You can test your knowledge of horns versus antlers by visiting the National Park Service website and playing their matching games.

Leave Antlers and Horns in the Wild

Peter Trimming Brittish Wildlife Center Common Use Red Squirrel eating antler

Red Squirrel chewing on antler for calcium (Peter Trimming, British Wildlife Center Common Use)

If you come across antlers or horns in the wild you should leave them outside. Part of the reason for this is that many antlers and horns are illegal to possess and you need a permit to collect them. the other major reason is that they provide nutritional value to vertebrates and invertebrates in the wild. Antlers are made from calcium, which is a hard to come by nutrient in the woods. Rodents and other wild animals chew on cast off antlers for nutrition; after all they can't run down to the local pharmacy for calcium supplements. Horns are also a good source of keratin for insects such as the horn moth.

 
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About Infinite Spider

I am currently the Education Program Coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. I have also been a curriculum developer for the Smithsonian Science Education Center and a contract curriculum writer for the Discovery Channel. In my spare time I am a blogger here at "The Infinite Spider" (Infinitespider.com), a science and nature blog for naturalists and outdoor educators. I love rowing crew, birding, hiking, kayaking, and being outdoors. My undergraduate degrees are in Environmental Science and Philosophy, and my graduate degree is in Biology. Currently I live in Annapolis, MD.