Most ungulates are surprisingly inept at using their horns against predators

@davidbygott @maxallen @beartracker @ludwig_muller

Most species of ungulates have pointed 'weapons' of some kind on their heads, be these horns, antlers or long canine teeth.

These are used in masculine rivalry. In species in which they occur also in females, they are used for other social threats in certain situations.

One might expect, then, that the horns, antlers and teeth of ungulates could be applied to stabbing predators.

Surprisingly, most species of ungulates turn out to be inept in fighting off predators. The pointed structures on their heads function far more as adornments than as weapons; and their ritual rather than violent deployment is analogous with the gentlemanly sport of fencing.

The problem seems to be that the 'hardware' lacks suitable 'software', i.e. the brains of ungulates do not seem to be programmed for aiming and striking at predators, regardless of how precise their use is in masculine sparring.

Ungulates generally rely on rapid fleeing and reproduction, not self-defence, in order to survive predation. When cornered, they lack the behavioural versatility to use their 'weapons' in more than a tokenistic way. Once wounded, they go into shock and seem to lose will and coordination.

The few exceptions appear to include

All of the above are ecologically and/or socially extreme in ways suggesting that fleeing and reproduction alone would not allow them to survive predation. And all have horn-designs unusually suited to stabbing and hooking.

Other ungulates with defensive reputations in the semi-popular literature, such as oryxes (, are more inept than the fearsome shapes of their horns might suggest.

The African savanna buffalo (Syncerus caffer, is certainly dangerous to humans when wounded. However, its horns are too blunt to stab an antagonist.

Various video-clips show how timorously the African buffalo behaves versus the lion (Panthera leo), even when there are opportunities to strike blows (see and and and and The lion is intimated more by the bulk and gregariousness of buffaloes than by the horn-tips.

The following video-clip ( ), taken near Kruger National Park, shows:

  • how obtuse the African buffalo can be, with the mother wandering out from the group with her infant, 'just asking for trouble',
  • that the mother does in fact put up a spirited defence against one adult male of the lion, but loses her infant anyway because several individuals of the lion are hunting together, and
  • how poorly co-ordinated the collective defence is: there are several mature males near the infant, but they do not cooperate to defend it.

And even when the predators, in the act of eating, are vulnerable to retribution, the mature male African savanna buffalo holds back, as if knowing that if several individuals of the lion grab him, he will not be able to rely on solidarity from the rest of his own group.
Furthermore, here is a point that I suspect will be overlooked by most naturalists: the mother, when attacked by the lion, does not flee into the nearby water.
If this were the river buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) or the water buffalo (Bubalus carabanensis), I expect that the mother would take refuge in the river immediately.

I realise that in plain view was a group of the hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), and that species would not necessarily show any solidarity with a buffalo. However, this footage suggests that the African savanna buffalo is quite different from its tropical Asian counterparts in its relationship to water. It obviously sees no refuge in the river.

Not only waterbucks (Kobus ellipsiprymnus and Kobus defassa), but even antelopes such as greater kudu (Strepsiceros strepsiceros) that have no particular aquatic affinity, would, I expect, have gone straight into the water to save themselves.

It is in the light of this general pattern, in which most ungulates are almost as vulnerable to predators as they would be were their horns absent, that we can understand the basic nature of Spanish bullfighting: choreography rather than a real contest of impalation. The matador pierces the bull, which is incapable of reciprocating - except by accident.

Publicado por milewski milewski, 17 de mayo de 2021


The hook-lipped rhino (Diceros bicornis) is certainly defensive, to the point of seeming aggressive. However it too tends to be inept in actually striking blows, partly owing to incongruously poor eyesight.

Publicado por milewski hace alrededor de 1 año (Marca)

Interesting. The elk sometimes will use antlers to try to fend off wolves, but they aren't well equipped to fight off a whole pack very well.

Publicado por beartracker hace alrededor de 15 horas (Marca)

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