No, unfortunately this isn’t a unicorn skull, but it’s probably the closest you’ll get aside from putting a pony in fancy dress. It is genuine, however, and belonged to a roe deer in Slovenia.
Antler deformities are fairly common in deer, and although there are a variety of possible causes for these developmental abnormalities, the majority are thought to be caused by an injury. This could be a bash to a buck’s skull or pedicle --the permanent outgrowth from which the antler develops-- sustained during a fight, or even an injury to a deer’s hind leg.
Antler abnormalities come in all shapes and sizes, but this particular example is highly unusual. So much so, that it piqued the interest of biologist Boštjan Pokorny, who had never seen anything like it before.
Normally, Pokorny explains to National Geographic, roe deer antlers are symmetrical and grow from two separate pedicles, but this particular buck’s pedicles appear to have merged into one. It’s not uncommon to see a deer with only one antler, which is known as a “spike,” because they can be lost in a number of ways. This buck is different, however, as it had a rare deformity, which likely resulted from an injury early in the antlers’ development.
Having just one antler may seem disadvantageous since bucks fight each other and attract females with these bony structures during mating season, but this animal grew to a ripe old age and was above average weight when it died. According to Pokorny, this is probably because mating success is largely based on the male’s age and body size in roe deer, so it wouldn’t have needed an impressive set of antlers.
Antlers are pretty fascinating things. Rather than consisting of a combination of keratin and bone, like almost all animal horns, antlers are fashioned entirely of bone. Rhinoceroses are an exception as their horns are composed entirely of keratin, the stuff that our hair and nails are made of. Furthermore, unlike horns which are permanent, antlers are normally grown and shed in a yearly cycle.
For many species of deer, antler growth is stimulated by a boost in testosterone levels which is triggered by longer periods of sunlight in spring and summer. During spring, the growing antler is mostly composed of soft tissue and is covered by a fuzzy layer of skin known as velvet. At this stage, the antler is very sensitive to injury, and knocks or kicks can lead to developmental abnormalities.
During the summer months, growth dramatically accelerates and some antlers can increase in length by as much as 2 inches per week. As the antlers approach their definitive shape, growth rate slows dramatically and the outer layer starts to mineralize into compact bone. When the breeding season is over, the area of bone where the pedicle meets the antler is broken down by cells called osteoclasts, which eventually causes them to drop.
[Via National Geographic]