Arxiu d'etiquetes: giraffe

It’s a matter of horns

Some beetles, lizards... have horn-like structures, but mammals have the most diverse horns without doubt. Are all horns the same? What are they used for? Do they have economic value? Find out more in the following post.

WHAT ARE HORNS?

Bulls, deer, rhinos… all of them have structures on their heads that we call horns, but they are not all the same. Strictly horns are two bony structures that emerge from the frontal bones of the skull, they are permanent (never fall off) and unbranched. In some species they grow throughout life.

El watusi, el bóvido con los cuernos más grandes del mundo. Foto: Marina Calvo
Watusi (Bos taurus watusii), the bovid with the biggest horns in the world. Photo: Marina Calvo

They are made up of a bony nucleus and an outer coating of keratin (the same protein from our hair and nails).

Horns have different shapes and sizes depending on the species: straight, curved or spiral; flipped, bent or flat; short or wide. All of them have sharp ends.

Diversidad de cuernos de la familia Bovidae. Fuente
Horns’ diversity of Bovidae. Source

All bovids (bulls, goats, sheep, antelopes…) have horns, including the females in many species. However, in general, females have thinner horns while in males they are wider and can withstand more force.

HORN GROWTH

When the horns begin to grow, they do not do it directly from the bone, but from the connective tissue. When growth is complete the horn nucleus ossifies and fuses with the frontal bones of the skull.

Cráneo de cabra en el que se observa el interior óseo del cuerno y la cubierta queratinosa. Fuente
Goat skull showing the bony interior of the horn and the keratinous covering. Source

AN EXCEPTION

The pronghorn has different horns than the bovids: they are branched and the keratinized covers change annually, whereas in bovids are permanent.

Berrendo (Antilocapra americana). Fuente
Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana). Source

WHAT ARE ANTLERS?

Antlers are two bony structures that come out of the frontal bones, but they are seasonal (they change every year) and branched .

Antlers only exist in males of the Cervidae family, except for the caribou or reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), in which both males and most of females have antlers.

GROWTH OF THE ANTLERS

Unlike horns, antlers do grow out of bony structures (pedicle) found on the side of the frontal bones.

Growth begins in spring (April or May in the Northern Hemisphere), due to hormonal changes and the gradual increase in light hours. The growth of the antlers has several phases:

  • Initial phase: antlers are covered with skin and velvet, so they also have blood vessels and nerves.
  • Intermediate phase: the exterior of spongy bone is replaced by compact bone. The interior is filled with spongy laminar bone.
  • Final phase: the velvet dies and it is removed. To help this removing the animals rub against the trunks and vegetation, leaving the antlers polished and brown.

    A, B, C: 1, 15 y 30 días de crecimiento. D, E: 3 y 5 meses después.F: pérdida del terciopelo. Fotos: A-E, Steve Demarais, F, Dave Hewitt.
    A, B, C: 1, 15 y 30 days of growht. D, E: 3 and 5 months later. F: loss of the velvet. Photos: A-E, Steve Demarais, F, Dave Hewitt

After the reproductive period the hormonal levels fall and the photoperiod decrease, which causes the pedicle to lose calcium, it weakens the union between itself and the horn and the horn ends up falling. The cycle will be repeated the following spring, and will appear one more branch, so the most an antler is branched, the older is the individual.

Alce pediendo su terciopleo. Fuente
Reindeer losing its velvet. Source

USES OF HORNS AND ANTLERS

As we know, mainly antlers and horns are used by males during the breeding season to compete for females, in fights and exhibitions. Usually the animals collide their horns/antlers together to demonstrate their body strength. Horns, often sharp, are also used as a defense against predator attacks.

Check out this spectacular dispute between two Canadian mouflons:

There are species with small antlers but highly developed tusks, despite being herbivores. This is because they also use them during fights. In contrast, species with larger antlers do not have these developed tusks.

Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus) - does not belong to the family Cervidae-, Muntjac (Muntiacus sp.) And roe deer (Capreolus capreolus)
Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus) -it does not belong to the family Cervidae-, Muntjac (Muntiacus sp.) and roe deer (Capreolus capreolus). Source

For humans, horns and antlers shouldn’t have significance. Unfortunately, its carriers are objective of hunters, for the mere achievement of their “trophy.” In Spain there are more than one million people with a hunting license. According to Fecaza, the hunting business generates 3.6 billion euros a year in Spain.

Trofeos de caza robados incautados por la Guardia Civil. Su valor pudo ascender a 300.000 euros. Fuente
Stolen hunting trophies seized by the Guardi Civil. Its value could amount to 300,000 euros. Source

Spain is also the second importing country of hunting trophies. Thousands of euros are paid (from 2,000 to 80,000) to make hunting safaris in Africa, for example, where the most valuable animal is the one with the largest horns. This results in the elimination of the best breeding males and in the decrease of specimens in general.

AND THE RHINOCEROS HORN?

Ironically, since their horns have led and are leading to extinction many species, rhinos do not actually have real horns, as they do not have a bony nucleus or a cover. They are an accumulation of corneous fibers, resembling a thick hair, although they are not true hairs. In addition, the horn is placed above the nasal bones, not  in frontal position as in the case of antlers and true horns. Only in species with two horns, the second one rests on the frontal bones.

In females, the horn would help to protect the young, whereas in males to face their rivals.

Sección de un cuerno de rinoceronte cisto bajo lus ultravioleta. Se observa el cartílago nasal, el hueso, la dermis y cómo el cuerno se asienta encima de la dermis. Fuente
Fraction of a rhinoceros horn under ultraviolet light. The nasal cartilage, the bone, the dermis and how the horn settle in above the dermis can be seen. Source

As we have discussed, due to the alleged magical powers of rhinoceros horns in the traditional medicine, we are extinguishing rhinoceroses just like with are doing with the pangolin… for a handful of keratin. On the black market, a kilo of rhinoceros horn can cost from $ 60,000 to $ 100,000, more than gold.

Rinoceronte con el cuerno amputado.
Rhinoceros with its horn amputated. Photo: A. Steirn

HAVE YOU NOTICED GIRAFFE’S HORNS?

As you may assume at this point, no, giraffes do not have true horns, but they also have two structures in the head, males, females and newborns. They are called ossicones. They are permanent, not branched and they are always covered with hair and skin. In fact, they already appear in the fetus as cartilaginous structures and do not merge into the skull until the age of 4, between the frontal and parietal bones.

Female giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis). Source
Female giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis). Source

We can tell age and sex of a giraffe by its ossicones: if they are thin and ended up in a tuft of hair they are young ones or females, while males do not usually have hair on its top. Males also have a protrusion in front of the ossicones more sharp than females. At an older age, this protuberance is bigger, since calcium is deposited over time.

Giraffe ossicones are used by males during their confrontations. Surely they played a more important role in its ancestors like the Sivatherium, the largest giraffid that has ever existed. It is possible that they also have some function in thermoregulation.

REFERENCES

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY

Evolution for beginners

Biological evolution is still not well understood by general public, and when we speak of it in our language abound expressions that confuse even more how mechanisms that lead to species diversity work. Through questions you may have ever asked yourself, in this article we will have a first look at the basic principles of evolution and debunk misconceptions about it.

IS EVOLUTION REAL? IT IS NOT JUST A THEORY OR AN IDEA WITHOUT EVIDENCES?

Outside the scientific field, the word “theory” is used to refer to events that have not been tested or assumptions. But a scientific theory is the explanation of a phenomenon supported by evidence resulting from the application of the scientific method.

scientific method
The scientific method. Image by Margreet de Heer.

Theories can be modified, improved or revised if new data don’t continue to support the theory, but they are always based on some data, repeatable and verifiable experiments by any researcher to be considered valid.

So few people (sic) doubts about the heliocentric theory (the Earth rotates around the Sun), or the gravitational theory of Newton, but in the popular imagination some people believe that the theory of evolution made by Charles Darwin (and Alfred Russell Wallace) is simply a hypothesis and has no evidence to support it. With new scientific advances, his theory has been improved and detailed, but more than 150 years later, nobody has been able to prove it wrong, just the contrary.

WHAT EVIDENCE WE HAVE THAT EVOLUTION IS TRUE?

We have many evidences and in this post we will not delve into them. Some of the evidence available to us are:

  • Paleontological record: the study of fossils tell us about the similarities and differences of existing species with others thousands or millions old, and to establish relationships respect each other.
  • Comparative anatomy: comparison of certain structures that are very similar between different organisms, can establish whether they have a common ancestor (homologous structures, for example, five fingers in some vertebrates) if they have developed similar adaptations (analogous structures, for example, the wings of birds and insects), or if they have lost their function (vestigial organs, such as the appendix).
Homologous organs in humans, cats, whales and bats
Homologous organs in humans, cats, whales and bats
  • Embryology: the study of embryos of related groups shows a strong resemblance in the earliest stages of development.
  • Biogeography: The study of the geographical distribution of living beings reveals that species generally inhabit the same regions as their ancestors, although there are other regions with similar climates.
  • Biochemistry and genetics: chemical similarities and differences allow to establish relationships among different species. For example, species closely related to each other have a structure of their DNA more similar than others more distant. All living beings share a portion of DNA that is part of your “instructions”, so there are also found in a fly, a plant or a bacterium, proof that all living things have a common ancestor.

IS IT TRUE THAT ORGANISMS ADAPT TO THE ENVIRONMENT AND ARE DESIGNED FOR LIVING IN THEIR HABITAT?

Both expressions, frequently used, mean that living beings have an active role to adapt to the environment or “someone” has designed them to live exactly where they are. It is a typical example of Lamarck and giraffes: as a result of stretching the neck to reach the higher leaves of the treescurrently giraffes have this neck for giving it this use. They have a necessity, they change their bodies to success. It is precisely upside down: it is the habitat that selects the fittest, nature “selects” those that are most effective to survive, and therefore reproduce. It is what is known as natural selection, one of the main mechanisms of evolution. It needs three requirements to act:

  • Phenotypic variability: there must be differences between individuals. Some giraffes necks were slightly longer than others, just as there are taller people than others, with blue or brown eyes.
  • Biological fitness: this difference has to suppose an advantage. For example, giraffes with a slightly longer neck could survive and reproduce, while the others don’t.
  • Heredity: these characters must be transmitted to the next generation, the offspring will be slightly different to that feature, while “short neck” feature transmits less and less.
natural selection
The variability in the population causes individuals with favorable characteristics to reproduce more and pass on their genes to the next generation, increasing the proportion of those genes. Image taken from Understanding evolution

Over the years these changes are accumulated until the genetic differences are so big that some populations may not mate with others: a new species has appeared.

If you thought that this is similar to artificial selection that we do with the different breeds of dogs, cows who give more milk, trees bearing more fruit and larger, congratulations, you think like Darwin as it was inspired by some of these facts. Therefore, living beings are mere spectators of the evolutionary process, depending of changes in their habitat and their genetic material.

WHY ORGANISMS ARE SO DIVERSE?

Genetic variability allows natural selection act. Changes in the genetic material (usually DNA) are caused by:

  • Mutations: changes in the genome that may be adverse or lethal for survival, indifferent or beneficial to survival and reproduction. If they have benefits, they will pass to the next generations.
  • Gene flow: is the motion of genes between populations (migration of individuals allows this exchange when mate with others in a different population).
  • Sexual reproduction: allows recombination of genetic material of different individuals, giving rise to new combinations of DNA.

Populations that have more genetic variability are more likely to survive if happen any changes in their habitat. Populations with less variability (eg, being geographically isolated) are more sensitive to any changes in their habitat, which may cause their extinction.

Evolution can be observed in beings with a very high reproduction rate, for example bacteria, since mutations accumulate more quickly. Have you ever heard that bacteria become resistant to our antibiotics or some insects to pesticides? They evolve so quickly that within a few years were selected the fittest to survive our antibiotics.

ARE WE THE MOST EVOLVED ANIMALS?

Theory of Evolution has various consequences, such as the existence of a common ancestor and that therefore, that we are animals. Even today, and even among the young ones, there is the idea that we are something different between living beings and we are in a special podium in the collective imagination. This anthropocentric thinking caused Darwin mockery and confrontations over 150 years ago.

caricatura, darwin, mono, orangutan
Caricature of Darwin as an orangutan. Public domain image first published in 1871

We use our language to be “more evolved” as a synonym for more complex, and we consider ourselves one species that has reached a high level of understanding of their environment, so many people believe that evolution has come to an end with us.

The question has a mistake of formulation: actually evolving pursues no end, it just happens, and the fact that millions of years allows the emergence of complex structures, it does not mean that simpler lifeforms are not perfectly matched in the habitat where they are. Bacteria, algae, sharks, crocodiles, etc., have remained very similar over millions of years. Evolution is a process that started acting when life first appeared and continues to act in all organisms, including us, although we have changed the way in which natural selection works  (medical and technological breakthroughs, etc.).

SO IF WE COME FROM MONKEYS, WHY DO STILL MONKEYS EXIST?

The truth is that we don’t come from monkeys, we are monkeys, or to be more rigorous, apes. We have not evolved from any existing primate. As we saw in a previous post, humans and other primates share a common ancestor and natural selection has been acting differently in each of us. That is, evolution has to be viewed as a tree, and not as a straight line, where each branch would be a species .

darwin, árbol, evolución, darwin tree, arbre evolutiu
First scheme of the evolutionary tree of Darwin in his notebook (1837). Public domain image.

Some branches stop growing (species become extinct), while others continue to diversify. The same applies to other species, in case you have asked yourself, “if amphibians come from fish, why are there still fish?”. Currently, genetic analyzes have contributed so much data that they make so difficult to redesign the classical Dariwn’s tree.

árbol filogenético, clasificación seres vivos, árbol de la vida
Classification of live organisms based on the three domains Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya, data of Carl R. Woese (1990). Included in Eukarya there are the Protista, Fungi, Plantae and Animalia kingdoms. Image by Rita Daniela Fernández.

Evolution is a very broad topic that still generates doubts and controversies. In this article we have tried to bring to uninitiated people some basics, where we can delve into the future. Do you have any questions about evolution? Are you interested into a subject that we have not talked about? You can leave your comments below.

REFERENCES

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY