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There are 220 species of ungulates, or hooved animals, and over half belong to just one family, Bovidea; that is, goats, sheep, cows and antelopes. California's only native member of this group is the bighorn. Pronghorn, by the way, are not true antelopes but belong in their own unique family. The Cervidae is another family of ungulates, which include deer, moose and elk. In the Bay Area we have four species in this group. The black tailed deer and the Tule elk are our native ones. And the two non-native species are fallow deer from Eurasia and axis deer from Sri Lanka. Both were introduced years ago into the Pt. Reyes Peninsula.

There are many things that distinguish cows from deer. But the most striking are those appendages popping out of their skulls. Cows have horns and deer have antlers. So what's the difference? Generally speaking both males and female can bear horns. The outer part is keratin -- the same protein that make up hairs and nails -- and this surrounds a core of solid bone. Horns are permanent: they don't fall off. And horns have little to do with seasonal sexual activity.

Antlers on the other hand are usually borne only by males. They are composed of true bone only. Right now our deer and elk have velvet-coated antlers, which are growing rapidly. By late August this development will slow, the velvet will be rubbed off. What is left is a secondary sexual characteristic. Antlers have no other function but to announce to rival males not only were this guy able to survive and thrive but also he could put extra energy into these large bony growths. Huge antlers allow him to dominate other males and females are attracted to prominent antlers. And antlers are deciduous: they fall off during the non-breeding season.

So actually our expression of sexual interest -- "I'm feeling a bit horny tonight, dear" -- should actually be, "I'm feeling a bit antlery."

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads tours throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.