Holiday Freak of the Week!

This week’s Freak of the week  is indeed a shed antler, and there are only a very few North American ungulates which could have such flat (palmate) sections on their antlers: moose, caribou, or the extinct Stag-moose (Cervalces). Moose is obviously much bigger and the antler is mostly palmate. So that leaves the caribou (known in Europe and Asia as the reindeer) and the strange Cervalces, whose antlers looks like a cross between an elk and a moose. Since this is the holiday Freak of the Week, the correct answer is the caribou (Rangifer tarandus)!

Caribou are very unusual and interesting animals. For one, they are the only member of the deer family (Cervidae) where the female may have antlers. Also, antlers in the deer family are almost always symmetrical, or close to it, but caribou have a strange antler tine, called the brow tine. This grows off the base of one of the antlers, either the left or right side, and then projects forward between the eyes. You can see the brow tine in the photo of yours truly playing tourist while finding caribou antlers in Alaska; it’s just above my hat. Most caribou appear to be “left-handed”, since the brow tine grows from the left antler twice as often as the right. The brow tine is usually very palmate and it’s function is not entirely known. It was first thought that it was used to scrape snow away for access to lichens, the main food of caribou in the winter. But caribou have well adapted feet for scraping snow and also the antlers are shed months before the snow has finally melted away. It’s now thought that this tine is used for protection of the face when fighting and as a weapon.

Even the Caribou Coffee logo shows the
palmate section at the end of the antler!

So what does this have to do with Ohio!? Well, like some other species now only found in the north, caribou were living in Ohio during the Pleistocene Epoch! In fact, our Pleistocene Mammal database lists 4 known records of the caribou. All are parts of antlers, which are easily recognizable as caribou. I wonder how many caribou bones have been mistaken for deer bones and never saved? You can see some of these Ice Age caribou antler fragments on display at the Ohio Historical Center, next to the Conway Mastodon.

We sometimes call antlers “horns” but in fact horns and antlers are quite different. Antlers are made entirely of bone while horn is a two-part structure. Horns have a bony core with an outer sheath made of keratin. Keratin is the same material that your fingernails and hair are made of. Later in this blog I’ll do an entire feature on the difference between antlers and horn, so stay tuned!

Posted December 23, 2013
Topics: Natural History
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