Unicorns may only exist in fairy tales, but a deer with a single antler must have looked pretty convincing from a distance.
The roe deer had a rare antler deformity that caused it to have a single cone-shaped bone protruding from the centre of its head.
Shot by a hunter in Celje, Slovenia, the deer’s skeleton shows its startling deformity, which was probably caused by an injury when its antlers first started growing.
Strangely-shaped antlers are common in deer and are often caused in this way, but scientist Boštjan Pokorny said the Slovenian ‘unicorn’s’ is unlike any other that he’s seen.
Dr Pokorny, assistant director of the ecological research institute Erico Velenje, told National Geographic that male roe deer’s antlers are bilateral, and usually grow from two places on the skull called pedicles.
‘However, in the case of this very untypical and interesting buck, both pedicles, which should be separated, grew up together in one large pedicle.’
The image of the deer’s skeleton will appear in the December issue of National Geographic Slovenia magazine.
Hunters are allowed to shoot the abundant deer species in Slovenia, and this one was thought to have been selected because of its age.
Deer can lose an antler in lots of ways – including rutting in breeding season – and the one left over is called a ‘spike’.
Dr Pokorny said it is unlikely that the hunter could have chosen the deer to kill because of its resemblance to a unicorn, because it would probably have looked as if it had an ordinary spike.
While the deer may not have been magical, wildlife biologist Kip Adams said the cells that cause antlers to grow are ‘amazing’ and antlers are the most rapidly growing bones known in mammals.
Antlers are shed every year and are made of bone. They differ from horns, which are permanent and made from keratin, just like fingernails and hair.
Spending time in sunlight causes male deer to release testosterone, which causes antlers to grow.
At first, the antlers are quite soft – made up of soft tissue, blood and nerves – and covered by a fuzzy layer of ‘velvet’ skin.
Before they harden around six months later, the antlers are sensitive, so it is likely that the young ‘unicorn’ deer suffered considerable pain when it was injured.
‘If they get hit by a car or get kicked by another deer, well, that can cause abnormal growth for the rest of the year,’ Dr Adams, director of education and outreach for the Quality Deer Management Association in Georgia, explained in the article.
However, Dr Pokorny said the deer must have been healthy to reach a decent size and age.
Once antlers have hardened, the deer’s body reabsorbs nutrients stored at the base of the antler, which weakens the bone above.
Most deer grow their antlers in springtime and shed them in winter, but roe deer do the opposite.
Unlike in some species, where mating success is determined by rutting, male roe deer attract a mate based on their age and body size.
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