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Descent of Man [ 1871]

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Author Topic: Descent of Man [ 1871]  (Read 3095 times)
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« Reply #180 on: February 10, 2009, 01:22:04 pm »

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.* 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,*(2) 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.*(3)

  * 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.
  *(2) 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.
  *(3) See a most interesting account in the Appendix to Hon. J. D.
Caton's paper, as above quoted.

  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 (see 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.
  An interesting case has lately been published, from which it appears
that the horns of a deer in one district in the United States are
now being modified through sexual and natural selection. A writer in
an excellent American journal* says that he has hunted for the last
twenty-one years in the Adirondacks, where the Cervus virginianus
abounds. About fourteen years ago he first heard of spike-horn
bucks. These became from year to year more common; about five years
ago he shot one, and afterwards another, and now they are frequently
killed. "The spike-horn differs greatly from the common antler of
the C. virginianus. It consists of a single spike, more slender than
the antler, and scarcely half so long, projecting forward from the
brow, and terminating in a very sharp point. It gives a considerable
advantage to its possessor over the common buck. Besides enabling
him to run more swiftly through the thick woods and underbrush
(every hunter knows that does and yearling bucks run much more rapidly
than the large bucks when armed with their cumbrous antlers), the
spike-horn is a more effective weapon than the common antler. With
this advantage the spike-horn bucks are gaining upon the common bucks,
and may, in time, entirely supersede them in the Adirondacks.
Undoubtedly, the first spike-horn buck was merely an accidental
freak of nature. But his spike-horns gave him an advantage, and
enabled him to propagate his peculiarity. His descendants having a
like advantage, have propagated the peculiarity in a constantly
increasing ratio, till they are slowly crowding the antlered deer from
the region they inhabit." A critic has well objected to this account
by asking, why, if the simple horns are now so advantageous, were
the branched antlers of the parent-form ever developed? To this I
can only answer by remarking, that a new mode of attack with new
weapons might be a great advantage, as shewn by the case of the Ovis
cycloceros, who thus conquered a domestic ram famous for his
fighting power. Though the branched antlers of a stag are well adapted
for fighting with his rivals, and though it might be an advantage to
the prong-horned variety slowly to acquire long and branched horns, if
he had to fight only with others of the same kind, yet it by no
means follows that branched horns would be the best fitted for
conquering a foe differently armed. In the foregoing case of the
Oryx leucoryx, it is almost certain that the victory would rest with
an antelope having short horns, and who therefore did not need to
kneel down, though an Oryx might profit by having still longer
horns, if he fought only with his proper rivals.

  * The American Naturalist, Dec., 1869, p. 552.
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