Horns are one of the most distinctive physical characters of cattle and of bovids in general. In fact, the presence of cattle horns has been the signature character of a number of critical religious and artistic figures through human history, including the seminal Ba’al of the ancient Middle East, the Minotaur of Greek legend, Apis of Egyptian mythology and the Ushi-Oni of Japan, among others (Figure 8.1). While there are many other, more subtle skeletal and soft tissue characters that distinguish bovids from other ruminants, the presence of paired frontal horns (and not antlers, ossicones or pronghorns: Davis et al. 2011) is an obvious character that clearly diagnoses the evolutionary group (Bibi et al. 2009). Among bovids, cattle horns are notable for the presence of horns in both sexes (before domestication) and their lack of surface elaboration (e.g. keels and rings). Consequently, the presence of horns in at least one sex is plesiomorphic within cattle, so their presence tells us little of the evolutionary relationships within the group. Rather, the distinctive shape of cattle horns, with broad, straight beams and a lack of surface elaboration, aids in distinguishing their fossil relatives from the closely related tragelaphine antelopes.
Besides their iconic appearance and role in evolutionary studies, horns affect the economics of raising and managing cattle.
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