Why Do Female Water Buffaloes Have Horns?

Science Scope, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Why Do Female Water Buffaloes Have Horns?


The reason some female hoofed animals have horns while others do not has long puzzled evolutionary biologists, even the great Charles Darwin. But now a survey of 117 bovid species led by Ted Stankowich, professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, suggests an answer: Females that can't readily hide in protective cover and those who must defend a feeding territory are more likely to have horns than those who live in protective habitat or don't defend a territory.

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The idea that horns and antlers evolved in male animals for fighting over mates and territories is well established, but until now no study has been able to come close to explaining ever y case of female horns in antelope, gazelles and similar species, says Stankowich, a former Darwin Postdoctoral Fellow. But that is just what he and co-author Tim Caro of the University of California Davis have done.

By developing the conspicuousness measure-the product of openness of habitat and shoulder height--as well as female territoriality for this analysis, Stankowich and Caro say they can explain "nearly every instance of horns in female bovids (80 of 82 species)." Results suggest that the evolution of horns in these females is driven by natural selection to enhance their ability to defend themselves and their young against predators.

In developing the conspicuousness measure, the researchers hypothesized that taller species living in the open are more visible from longer distances and more likely to benefit from horns to defend themselves against predators. …

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