Monday, February 6, 2017

The Unicorn

Unicorn antler, draped in velvet - August 2016

Unicorn and friend - September 2016
Early this fall our friend Willie started seeing a "unicorn deer" on game cameras along the creek.  It became an obsession like Captain Ahab's chase of Moby Dick.  When he finally got a shot at it, the arrow deflected off a branch and it bolted away, leaving a trace of blood.  He spent days searching for it without success.

Fast forward to this January.  He was out again the last day of archery season with a tag left when he saw an antler-less deer approaching.  It was underweight and limping badly, unlikely to survive long.  He decided to take it as his last tag in an act of merciful euthanasia.  It turned out to be a buck that had shed its rack early.  Cleaning it he saw the leg wound in its knee, then noticed the pedicle scars where the horns had shed.  The right pedicle was large and irregular, suggesting that this was the "unicorn."
Pointing out the "unicorn" point
Pedicle and antler - perfect fit - Click to enlarge

A week later, Barb found a shed up on the glade.  We sent the photograph to Willie who excitedly reported that it was the unicorn antler.  He retrieved the skull which showed a perfect fit between the antler and the pedicle.

Barb started reading up on deer antler growth and said deer and other cervids such as moose and elk were the only mammals that could regenerate a lost organ.  I argued that an antler isn't an organ but was destroyed by her her resources.  (After 51 years of marriage I should have known better.)

Antlers contain skin, bone, cartilage, blood vessels and nerves while growing.  They are the fastest growing tissue in mammals and can grow an inch a day!  The skin (velvet) falls off on its own although helped along by rubbing.  I had heard theories that it itched but apparently only deer hunters have the itch as velvet has no nerves by the time it falls off.

Deformities can cause atypical racks and are prized by deer hunters.  They are caused by injury to the pedicle or to the tender velvet that is providing nutrition to the underlying developing bone.  Even a leg injury can cause alteration of growth to the antler on the opposite side.

Just when I thought I had read everything to know about "unicorn" antlers, Zoe, a WOLF school student, taught me one more fact.  Did you know that the national animal of Scotland is the unicorn?  Historian Elyse Waters recently described the source of this connection.  Folklore extending back 5,000 year to the Babylonians held that unicorns were bitter enemies with lions and elephants.  It was a symbol of nobility, purity and power, still believed in when King Robert adopted it as the Scottish national animal in the 1300s, putting it on his coat of arms.

One last technical note.  A unicorn would likely have had a horn made of keratin (if it indeed existed) and our deer's antler is made of bone.

Addendum:  I was showing the shed to Jay Barber and VP Shelly Jones and I mentioned that I had found a pair of sheds 20 feet apart and wondered if the deer might shake it head to get the second antler off once it felt the lopsided pressure.  She showed me this video of a moose shaking off a loose antler.

A little Googling brought some confirmation of this.  Several sites talk about deer sheding their remaining antler by shaking or rubbing them, as in this note from
"Antlers occasionally fall off together, but that’s somewhat rare. I do believe; however, that a mature buck will put quite a bit of effort into getting the other side off because of the lopsided feeling he has with one antler. He shake’s his head, rub the antler on trees and push it on the ground to work it off. If you find a nice shed, put an exhaustive effort into finding the other side. Chances are good that it’s close by."