The Descent of Man – Day 125 of 151

The tusks of the elephant, in the different species or races, differ according to sex, nearly as do the horns of ruminants. In India and Malacca the males alone are provided with well-developed tusks. The elephant of Ceylon is considered by most naturalists as a distinct race, but by some as a distinct species, and here “not one in a hundred is found with tusks, the few that possess them being exclusively males.” (20. Sir J. Emerson Tennent, ‘Ceylon,’ 1859, vol. ii. p. 274. For Malacca, ‘Journal of Indian Archipelago,’ vol. iv. p. 357.) The African elephant is undoubtedly distinct, and the female has large well-developed tusks, though not so large as those of the male.

These differences in the tusks of the several races and species of elephants–the great variability of the horns of deer, as notably in the wild reindeer–the occasional presence of horns in the female Antilope Bezoartica, and their frequent absence in the female of Antilocapra americana–the presence of two tusks in some few male narwhals–the complete absence of tusks in some female walruses–are all instances of the extreme variability of secondary sexual characters, and of their liability to differ in closely-allied forms.

Although tusks and horns appear in all cases to have been primarily developed as sexual weapons, they often serve other purposes. The elephant uses his tusks in attacking the tiger; according to Bruce, he scores the trunks of trees until they can be thrown down easily, and he likewise thus extracts the farinaceous cores of palms; in Africa he often uses one tusk, always the same, to probe the ground and thus ascertain whether it will bear his weight. The common bull defends the herd with his horns; and the elk in Sweden has been known, according to Lloyd, to strike a wolf dead with a single blow of his great horns. Many similar facts could be given. One of the most curious secondary uses to which the horns of an animal may be occasionally put is that observed by Captain Hutton (21. ‘Calcutta Journal of Natural History,’ vol. ii, 1843, p. 526.) with the wild goat (Capra aegagrus) of the Himalayas and, as it is also said with the ibex, namely that when the male accidentally falls from a height he bends inwards his head, and by alighting on his massive horns, breaks the shock. The female cannot thus use her horns, which are smaller, but from her more quiet disposition she does not need this strange kind of shield so much.

Each male animal uses his weapons in his own peculiar fashion. The common ram makes a charge and butts with such force with the bases of his horns, that I have seen a powerful man knocked over like a child. Goats and certain species of sheep, for instance the Ovis cycloceros of Afghanistan (22. Mr. Blyth, in ‘Land and Water,’ March, 1867, p. 134, on the authority of Capt. Hutton and others. For the wild Pembrokeshire goats, see the ‘Field,’ 1869, p. 150.), rear on their hind legs, and then not only butt, but “make a cut down and a jerk up, with the ribbed front of their scimitar-shaped horn, as with a sabre. When the O. cycloceros attacked a large domestic ram, who was a noted bruiser, he conquered him by the sheer novelty of his mode of fighting, always closing at once with his adversary, and catching him across the face and nose with a sharp drawing jerk of the head, and then bounding out of the way before the blow could be returned.” In Pembrokeshire a male goat, the master of a flock which during several generations had run wild, was known to have killed several males in single combat; this goat possessed enormous horns, measuring thirty-nine inches in a straight line from tip to tip. The common bull, as every one knows, gores and tosses his opponent; but the Italian buffalo is said never to use his horns: he gives a tremendous blow with his convex forehead, and then tramples on his fallen enemy with his knees–an instinct which the common bull does not possess. (23. M. E.M. Bailly, “Sur l’usage des cornes,” etc., .Annal des Sciences Nat.’ tom. ii. 1824, p. 369.) Hence a dog who pins a buffalo by the nose is immediately crushed. We must, however, remember that the Italian buffalo has been long domesticated, and it is by no means certain that the wild parent-form had similar horns. Mr. Bartlett informs me that when a female Cape buffalo (Bubalus caffer) was turned into an enclosure with a bull of the same species, she attacked him, and he in return pushed her about with great violence. But it was manifest to Mr. Bartlett that, had not the bull shewn dignified forbearance, he could easily have killed her by a single lateral thrust with his immense horns. The giraffe uses his short, hair-covered horns, which are rather longer in the male than in the female, in a curious manner; for, with his long neck, he swings his head to either side, almost upside down, with such force that I have seen a hard plank deeply indented by a single blow.

Oryx leucoryx, male (from the Knowsley Menagerie).

Figure 63: Oryx leucoryx, male (from the Knowsley Menagerie).

With antelopes it is sometimes difficult to imagine how they can possibly use their curiously-shaped horns; thus the springboc (Ant. euchore) has rather short upright horns, with the sharp points bent inwards almost at right angles, so as to face each other; Mr. Bartlett does not know how they are used, but suggests that they would inflict a fearful wound down each side of the face of an antagonist. The slightly-curved horns of the Oryx leucoryx (Fig. 63) are directed backwards, and are of such length that their points reach beyond the middle of the back, over which they extend in almost parallel lines. Thus they seem singularly ill-fitted for fighting; but Mr. Bartlett informs me that when two of these animals prepare for battle, they kneel down, with their beads between their fore legs, and in this attitude the horns stand nearly parallel and close to the ground, with the points directed forwards and a little upwards. The combatants then gradually approach each other, and each endeavours to get the upturned points under the body of the other; if one succeeds in doing this, he suddenly springs up, throwing up his head at the same time, and can thus wound or perhaps even transfix his antagonist. Both animals always kneel down, so as to guard as far as possible against this manoeuvre. It has been recorded that one of these antelopes has used his horn with effect even against a lion; yet from being forced to place his head between the forelegs in order to bring the points of the horns forward, he would generally be under a great disadvantage when attacked by any other animal. It is, therefore, not probable that the horns have been modified into their present great length and peculiar position, as a protection against beasts of prey. We can however see that, as soon as some ancient male progenitor of the Oryx acquired moderately long horns, directed a little backwards, he would be compelled, in his battles with rival males, to bend his head somewhat inwards or downwards, as is now done by certain stags; and it is not improbable that he might have acquired the habit of at first occasionally and afterwards of regularly kneeling down. In this case it is almost certain that the males which possessed the longest horns would have had a great advantage over others with shorter horns; and then the horns would gradually have been rendered longer and longer, through sexual selection, until they acquired their present extraordinary length and position.

With stags of many kinds the branches of the horns offer a curious case of difficulty; for certainly a single straight point would inflict a much more serious wound than several diverging ones. In Sir Philip Egerton’s museum there is a horn of the red-deer (Cervus elaphus), thirty inches in length, with “not fewer than fifteen snags or branches”; and at Moritzburg there is still preserved a pair of antlers of a red-deer, shot in 1699 by Frederick I., one of which bears the astonishing number of thirty-three branches and the other twenty-seven, making altogether sixty branches. Richardson figures a pair of antlers of the wild reindeer with twenty-nine points. (24. On the horns of red-deer, Owen, ‘British Fossil Mammals,’ 1846, p. 478; Richardson on the horns of the reindeer, ‘Fauna Bor. Americana,’ 1829, p. 240. I am indebted to Prof. Victor Carus, for the Moritzburg case.) From the manner in which the horns are branched, and more especially from deer being known occasionally to fight together by kicking with their fore-feet (25. Hon. J.D. Caton (‘Ottawa Acad. of Nat. Science,’ May 1868, p. 9) says that the American deer fight with their fore-feet, after “the question of superiority has been once settled and acknowledged in the herd.” Bailly, ‘Sur l’Usage des cornes,’ ‘Annales des Sciences Nat.’ tom. ii. 1824, p. 371.), M. Bailly actually comes to the conclusion that their horns are more injurious than useful to them. But this author overlooks the pitched battles between rival males. As I felt much perplexed about the use or advantage of the branches, I applied to Mr. McNeill of Colonsay, who has long and carefully observed the habits of red-deer, and he informs me that he has never seen some of the branches brought into use, but that the brow antlers, from inclining downwards, are a great protection to the forehead, and their points are likewise used in attack. Sir Philip Egerton also informs me both as to red-deer and fallow-deer that, in fighting, they suddenly dash together, and getting their horns fixed against each other’s bodies, a desperate struggle ensues. When one is at last forced to yield and turn round, the victor endeavours to plunge his brow antlers into his defeated foe. It thus appears that the upper branches are used chiefly or exclusively for pushing and fencing. Nevertheless in some species the upper branches are used as weapons of offence; when a man was attacked by a wapiti deer (Cervus canadensis) in Judge Caton’s park in Ottawa, and several men tried to rescue him, the stag “never raised his head from the ground; in fact he kept his face almost flat on the ground, with his nose nearly between his fore feet, except when he rolled his head to one side to take a new observation preparatory to a plunge.” In this position the ends of the horns were directed against his adversaries. “In rolling his head he necessarily raised it somewhat, because his antlers were so long that he could not roll his head without raising them on one side, while, on the other side they touched the ground.” The stag by this procedure gradually drove the party of rescuers backwards to a distance of 150 or 200 feet; and the attacked man was killed. (26. See a most interesting account in the Appendix to Hon. J.D. Caton’s paper, as above quoted.)

Strepsiceros Kudu (from Sir Andrew Smith's 'Zoology of South Africa.'

Figure 64: Strepsiceros Kudu (from Sir Andrew Smith’s ‘Zoology of South Africa.’

Although the horns of stags are efficient weapons, there can, I think be no doubt that a single point would have been much more dangerous than a branched antler; and Judge Caton, who has had large experience with deer, fully concurs in this conclusion. Nor do the branching horns, though highly important as a means of defence against rival stags, appear perfectly well adapted for this purpose, as they are liable to become interlocked. The suspicion has therefore crossed my mind that they may serve in part as ornaments. That the branched antlers of stags as well as the elegant lyrated horns of certain antelopes, with their graceful double curvature (Fig. 64), are ornamental in our eyes, no one will dispute. If, then, the horns, like the splendid accoutrements of the knights of old, add to the noble appearance of stags and antelopes, they may have been modified partly for this purpose, though mainly for actual service in battle; but I have no evidence in favour of this belief.

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