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Magnificent Horned Sheep

At the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

sheep! Magazine, July 1999, page 15.

Please be patient as this page loads. In order to illustrate the variety of horns commonly seen, there are eight photos of rams on this page.
Ideal May weather greeted exhibitors, sheep, and visitors alike for this year's 26th annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. With over 900 wool sheep on display, including most rare or classic as well as the more common breeds, a real smorgasbord of fiber was represented.

Several characteristics make one breed distinguishable from another: the fleece-type, color, size, etc.; but one of the most noticeable features is the presence of horns, especially the horns on rams. Since I do raise one of the horned breeds of sheep, I find this subject fascinating as well as scientifically motivating.

For a few years now I've been researching the subject of horns in sheep. While there is some information available, much is lacking. Even though the results of my research are still in the planning stage, I couldn't help but walk around the Howard County Fairgrounds and take pictures of the beautiful horned rams. In two instances, the Shetland and the Icelandic breeds, only ewes were on exhibit, so I took the liberty of using file photos of rams.

Black Welsh Mountain Ram
Black Welsh Mountain Ram
Icelandic Rams
Icelandic Rams

Horns play a prominent role in social and sexual interactions in sheep. The presence or absence of horns can be attributed to genetics for the most part. Horn development can range from fully developed, large curly horns (spiral or coil), firmly attached to the skull, to polled or hornless animals with no horn development and concave depressions in the skull. Intermediate types have short knobs or scurs that may or may not be attached to the skull. Like wool, horn growth is the product of the skin. The color of the horns is usually the same color as the hooves and can be linked to the wool color, just look at these pictures.

Jacob Ram
Jacob Ram
Karakul Ram
Karakul Ram

It's interesting to note that in cold climates heat loss through the horn surface may be substantial. The internal core of the horn contains many blood vessels, while the outer keratin sheath presumably offers little the way of insulation. Considerable amounts of heat can be lost through the horn surface, particularly in the large-horned species. Horns are thought to play a thermo regulator role as heat-dissipation structures and benefit the animal in hot weather, but this heat loss may be detrimental in winter. The largest surface area that the animal can afford to sustain through the winter may limit horn size.

Merino Ram
Merino Ram
Rambouillet Ram
Rambouillet Ram

Examine the horns on the animals in these photos. The animals entered in the sheep shows were yearlings or younger, so horn growth rates can be substantial. Notice that the bodies of the horns spiral in opposite directions: they're "conjugate," one being the mirror image of the other, and they should be balanced or symmetrical. Each horn normally has 3 borders and 3 surfaces (back, front, and side). The side border is relatively sharp and the frontal border somewhat blunter and rounded across its length. These divisions are more difficult to see in a round horn versus the angular type. During growth many primary or subannual horn rings are formed which resemble wrinkles, ripples or slight ridges; these are separated by a complementary series of shallow primary or subannual horn grooves. There are deeper secondary or annual horn grooves that occur at approximately yearly intervals due to cessation of growth in winter, or periods of drought, or mating activity.

Scottish Blackface Ram
Scottish Blackface Ram
Shetland Rams
Shetland Rams

You'd think that the big masculine-looking horned animal would be able to slay all competition and the weaker scurred or polled animals would be no match in this survival-of-the-fittest world. But in a recent issue of Science Magazine a study showed that survival of a species is determined by the female, the fickle female being more attracted to the big virile-looking flashy male for his looks. Fortunately these good looks are normally linked to 'good' genes; genes that keep the species strong and viable. Interesting. Oh, did I mention this study was done in fruit flies and tree toads? Anyhow, horns are beautiful, intricate, and interesting structures.

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