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Headgear

DF_090512MarcoPoloSheepHorns_1178.jpg

Even without its impressive horns, the Marco Polo sheep is the world's largest sheep at three to four feet tall at its shoulder.

AMNH/D. Finnin


"Check out the ossicones on that giraffe." OK, that may sound a little weird, but it's better than "Look at the tooth on that narwhal."

 
 Either way, we're talking about headgear here--from the relatively small ossicones on the head of a giraffe to the large left incisor that projects from the narwhal whale's upper jaw as a tusk. Strangely enough, as many mammals that developed horns, antlers, tusks or ossicones--from deer and sheep to cattle and goats--no early mammals had horns on their heads.

 
 Despite that original lack of headgear, some mammals, like the male moose, evolved antlers as wide as a car over millions of years. Others, like Embolotherium andrewsi, developed horns as support systems for their giant noses (and to head-butt rivals).
 
 But why? Why do we now see these extreme examples of headgear when mammals once roamed the earth with plain-old heads, bones and teeth?
 
 Defense, recognition and mating--three common reasons threaded throughout evolution. Nearly all mammals with headgear are prey animals and sometimes use their headgear as defense against would-be attackers.
 
 Most mammals with headgear live in social groups rather than alone--using headgear as a quick way to recognize kin. For male mammals, head "decor" can be an eye-catching way to advertise vigor and desirability to females and strength and dominance to males.

Fun Facts
  • The ossicones on a giraffe are made up of bony cores that develop first within the skin as a knob of cartilage. Ossicones later "ossify," becoming bone. A baby giraffe's ossicones lie flat against the head at birth, popping upright about a week later.
  • Made up of branched bones shed annually, antlers regrow each year from a permanent bony base. At first, antlers have thin, hair-covered skin called "velvet" that eventually falls off, leaving antlers sharp and shiny. Antler bones grow incredibly fast--up to an inch a day.
  • The Marco Polo sheep is the world's largest sheep (three to four feet or 1-1.3 meters tall at its shoulder). At home on the steep hillsides and mountains of Central Asia, a male will fight for females by rearing up from a distance and then racing toward its rival, crashing into him horns-first.

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