McGowan's mystery bovid

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I'm out in the field tomorrow: whether I blog on what happens will depend on... what happens. Think snakes, sea caves and mammal tracking. Until then, here is a mystery...

What do these horns belong to? They're part of Jon McGowan's collection: he acquired them some years ago from an antique shop (the same sort of place where he previously obtained a head of the remarkable Osborn's caribou), so provenance data of any sort is lacking. While this animal is clearly a bovid, beyond that we're having trouble identifying it. As you can see from the ruler, it's not particularly big: we estimate that the animal was about the size of a domestic goat or serow. Judging by the interdigitation of the sutures and the 'worn' look to the transverse ridges of the horns, this was probably a mature animal and not a juvenile. Several features make this animal unusual. While its horns are not exceptionally long, they possess particularly prominent transverse ridges and curve gently outwards at their tips. The supraorbital foramina appear proportionally large and are set within large, oval fossae [see close-up image below].

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For those who know about the Pseudonovibos controversy, I will add that the natural wear and tear on the horn surfaces shows that there is no way that their shape has been modified by heating or bending (those that don't know what I'm getting at will either have to be very patient or check out the literature: Macdonald & Yang 1997, Brandt et al. 2001, Hassanin et al. 2001, Kuznetsov et al. 2001, Thomas et al. 2001, Timm & Brandt 2001, Feiler et al. 2002).

In the following discussion, I haven't deliberately attempted to go through the various bovid clades in any sort of phylogenetic pattern: there are several different views on how bovids should be classified and divided but most recent studies (Hassanin & Douzery 1999, 2003, Ropiquet & Hassanin 2004) have found support for the fairly traditional view that Bovidae includes a Bovinae (cattle, boselaphines and tragelaphines) and an Antilopinae (gazelles, sheep, goat antelopes and kin, wildebeest and hartebeest, oryxes and sable antelope, and others). When making my comparisons, I had Walker's Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition and David Macdonald's The New Encyclopedia of Mammals to hand.


Cattle are out as they lack prominent transverse ridges and the whopping great big supraorbital foramina present in this animal. Some duikers possess transverse ridges, but none have out-curving horns nor large supraorbital foramina so far as I can tell. Duikers are also big brained (among antelopes they actually have, proportionally, the biggest brains of all, this despite the fact that they're apparently 'primitive') and their frontal regions tend to have an inflated look that isn't present in the mystery bovid. The horns of the mystery bovid lack the spiralling present in tragelaphines, and no tragelaphine has true transverse ridges. It's not a Nilgai Boselaphus tragocamelus as they have smooth horns and many other differences [adjacent image shows nilgai skull].


Comparisons with reduncines (the clade that includes waterbuck, lechwe and so on) might look promising given the prominent transverse ridges present in members of this group, but again none of the species have horns that curve outwards. Reedbuck Redunca fulvorufula [shown in adjacent image] have horns that are rather similarly proportioned to the horns of the mystery bovid, and reedbuck horns also possess similar transverse ridges. However, in reedbucks the horns curve forwards and slightly inwards, not strongly outwards. I think that hippotragines - the oryxes, sable antelope and so on - are also out as no species has the relatively stout horns of the mystery bovid, nor do their horns curve outwards. Alcelaphines (hartebeest and wildbeest) also lack species that resemble the horns of the specimen. Dik-diks, grysboks, dwarf antelopes and klipspringers and so on are also out.

Gazelles are their kin (antilopines) include species with similarly proportioned horns, many of which exhibit transverse ridges like those of the mystery bovid. I have yet to see any species where the horns curve outwards as they do in the mystery bovid however, or where the supraorbital foramina are either as large as they are in the mystery bovid, or set within the same sort of shallow fossae, but that doesn't mean that such a species doesn't exist. Saiga horns don't sweep laterally.


Finally, what about caprines? This is where the affinities of the animal most likely lie, but having said that we've still failed to find a match. Sheep are out for the same reason as many of the other groups I've mentioned so far: in sheep, the supraorbital foramina are not as proportionally large as they are in the mystery bovid, nor are they set within such large fossae. Goats (including ibex, markhor and turs), bharals and the Barbary sheep Ammotragus are highly similar to sheep in these features (so far as I can tell) and don't particularly resemble the mystery bovid [adjacent image shows Pakistani markhor Capra falconeri. What an amazing beast].

What about serows Capricornis and gorals Naemorhedus. Nope, as in neither do the horns sweep outwards. Radically different horn morphologies are exhibited by American mountain goat Oreamnos, chamois Rupicapra and musk ox Ovibos. It can't be a takin Budorcas as their horns always begin to curve laterally right near their bases, whereas in the mystery bovid the lateral curvature only occurs near the tips, and in takin the horn bases are very close together (in the mystery bovid they are well apart). Tahr Hemitragus possess laterally compressed horns that lack prominent transverse ridges [image below shows Arabian tahr H. jayakari].

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And that's it. I remain stumped. Is it some sort of obscure gazelle that is hardly ever/never illustrated in the literature or is it an aberrant caprine? Those are my best guesses but, as noted, even they don't fit entirely. As yet, we haven't done any of the proper sorts of comparisons that are needed to go further on the specimen: on the 'to do' list is a visit to a comprehensive bovid skull collection (e.g., that at the Natural History Museum, London). I know that there are a few bovid gurus out there that can perhaps provide an answer to our conundrum, so if you're available to help please do. The danger in asking for help like this is that you can always come away from the experience looking dreadfully inexperienced and naive. But, then, I never pretended to be a bovid expert.

In other news, I have added some new stuff to the biography page, and observant readers may have noticed that the profile is now different. Yes, things they are a-changing.

Refs - -

Brandt, J. H., Dioli, M., Hassanin, A., Melville, R. A., Olson, L. E., Seveau, A. & Timm, R. M. 2001. Debate on the authenticity of Pseudonovibos spiralis as a new species of wild bovid from Vietnam and Cambodia. Journal of Zoology 255, 437-444.

Feiler, A., Ziegler, T., Ansorge, H. & Nadler, T. 2002. Pseudonovibos spiralis - Mythos oder Wirklichkeit? ZGAP Mitteilungen 18, 21-24.

Hassanin, A. & Douzery, J. P. 1999a. Evolutionary affinities of the enigmatic saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) in the context of the molecular phylogeny of Bovidae. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 266, 893-900.

- . & Douzery, J. P. 1999b. The tribal radiation of the family Bovidae (Artiodactyla) and the evolution of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 13, 227-243.

- ., Seveau, A., Thomas, H., Bocherens, H., Billiou, D. & Nguyen, B. X. 2001. Evidence from DNA that the mysterious 'linh duong' (Pseudonovibos spiralis) is not a new bovid. Comptes Rendu de l'Academie des Sciences, Paris, Sciences de la vie 324, 71-80.

Kuznetsov, G. V., Kulikov, E. E., Petrov, N. B., Ivanova, N. V., Lomov, A. A., Kholodova, M. V. & Poltaraus, A. B. 2001. The 'lin duong' Pseudonovibos spiralis (Mammalia, Artiodactyla) is a new buffalo. Naturwissenschaften 88, 123-125.

Macdonald, A. A. & Yang, L. N. 1997. Chinese sources suggest early knowledge of the 'unknown' ungulate (Pseudonovibos spiralis) from Vietnam and Cambodia. Journal of Zoology 241, 523-526.

Ropiquet, A. & Hassanin, A. 2004. Molecular phylogeny of caprines (Bovidae, Antilopinae): the question of their origin and diversification during the Miocene. Journal of Zoological Systematics & Evolutionary Research 43, 49-60.

Thomas, H., Seveau, A. & Hassanin, A. 2001. The enigmatic new Indochinese bovid, Pseudonovibos spiralis: an extraordinary forgery. Comptes Rendu de l'Academie des Sciences, Paris, Sciences de la vie 324, 81-86.

Timm, R. M. & Brandt, J. H. 2001. Pseudonovibos spiralis (Artiodactyla: Bovidae): new information on this enigmatic South-east Asian ox. Journal of Zoology 253, 157-166.


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For some reason, based entirely on horn shape I was thinking that they seemed reminescent of impala (Aepyceros melampus), or maybe the Hirola (Beatragus hunteri), though I am most likely wrong. A lateral view would also be very useful.

Offhand, I'm guessing Spanish ibex or similar (a youngish ibex of some sort, for instance).



Definitely not an Impala. As a matter of fact I can't think of any African antelope which has horns that curve outward like that. The Southern Reedbuck probably comes closest, but it would have to be a very aberrant animal.
The weird thing is that the horns are relatively small. In Ibex the horns typically grow fairly vertically in young animals and curve outwards in adults with long horns. I agree that a side view would be helpful.
How about a youngish caucasian tur? They have strongly diverging horns.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

...the profile is now different...

Did you find that big sack of cash you were looking for?

As for mystery-bovine, I know very little about morphological taxonomy. So I don't have a serious guess. However, I'm wondering how much is known about horn development and growth in bovids. Lots and lots of molecular genetic, developmental, and physiological work has been done on Bos taurus - does anyone know how many gene or gene-regulation changes would have to be made to make an otherwise similar horn curve outwards like that in a rare mutant individual? If it's simply a matter of one or two mutations, what species have horns similar to these but for one feature?

It looks very similar to the horns of gerenuk (a type of antelope).

By krenshala (not verified) on 18 Apr 2007 #permalink

It looks very similar to the horns of gerenuk

Thanks for this suggestion: I agree, there is a strong superficial similarity. However, have you ever seen a gerenuk where the horns diverge laterally as much as they do in this specimen? In all the images I can find, gerenuk horn tips either curve forwards or inwards (for examples go here , here and here). Gerenuks also seem to have far more finely-spaced transverse ridges. I'd also like to know if gerenuks have the big supraorbital foramina and associated fossae of the mystery bovid - please confirm if you can.

Could it be that the horns are simply mounted wrong? Like, broken off and put back in an alternate position? They kinda look to me as if they've been reversed, like the horn on the left actually lives on the right and vice versa. Also, is that sucker heavily vanished? Could be to hide the switcheroo, I've seen some pretty convincing jackalope mounts, also heavily coated...anyhoo, random thoughts.

Good comments Jason. We have indeed considered the possibility that the position of the horns has been modified (in the close-up photo, look at the odd crinkled 'lip' around the horn's bases). So far as we can tell at the moment however, what you see is the genuine position and orientation. But this certainly does remain a possibility. Jon has mentioned the idea of pulling one of the horn sheaths off to verify this, and I'll keep you posted if he goes that far.

And, yes, the horns are indeed varnished. As you know this is typical for mounted horns.

Even if the horns have been modified, this doesn't explain the morphology of the supraorbital foramina and fossae, which I have yet to see in anything else. As discussed before (and in connection with Vanessa's comment), that point about the supraorbital foramina and fossae has led me to reject sheep as candidates for the bovid's identity, but I'm willing to change my mind if someone can show me a sheep with this sort of morphology.

Definitely not a gerenuk either. Gerenuk horns curve inwards when seen from the front. Also the transverse ridges on gerenuk horns extend to the tip of the horns, or nearly so.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

How about a hybrid?

By K. Stuart (not verified) on 21 Apr 2007 #permalink

Sir, Could you have a blackbuck?They are from India & Pakistan area. It could be a very old and worn animal with misshapen horns. Sincerely, Paul

By paul hughes (not verified) on 14 Aug 2007 #permalink

Excellent suggestion Paul! a quick gooogle search shows that the supraorbital foraminae of blackbucks are big and set in fossae. The horns also point out. Could it be a young individual that was only just completing its first turn?

Wow - I agree, finally we have an animal where the morphology of the supraorbital foramina matches (though I'm not yet saying that this solves the mystery!). I'm surprised I missed that actually, as I checked blackbuck material at the time I first saw the specimen. I will check further details and post more on this in the future.

a friend of mine sent this link to me. I think this is Antilope cervicapra. and I see that Paul Hughes has already suggested this. I'm pretty sure that this is blackbuck.
Cheers, Maia

By Maia Bukhsianidze (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

the horns could definatly be those of a Jacob sheep!. at least the top set of horns as some have 4 horns. When you look into this please look at more than a few jacobs as the horns differ on many but the shape and the ridges definatly look like a Jacobs to me.

By Donna Marshall (not verified) on 03 Sep 2007 #permalink

the horns are very simmilar to the Jacob sheep, some jacobs have 4 horns. the size is about right although some have larger horns. the ridges are about right. those horns apear to be from a female I would say or perhaps a young buck.

By Donna Marshall (not verified) on 03 Sep 2007 #permalink

I forwarded the pics to Maia (above). She listed several morphological characters identifying this as a blackbuck (email her or me if you are interested in the details). Not knowing these characters myself, I was mildly disbelieving because of the shape of the horns - adult male horns obviously look quite different. I finally ran across a picture of a sufficiently young blackbuck male (in a 1960s book on antelope), and the horns do indeed look like that.

By Katie Brakora (not verified) on 29 Sep 2007 #permalink

I dont know what the other think about this horn. But as I'm a Cambodian so this horn must belong to Khting Vor or we call Eating snake cow.
Everybody, even other people living in Cambodia who believe the existing of this Bovid, never see the real animal.
Because, it is a rare animal, that have been destroyed by the hunter, and the civil war in Cambodia.
Because people believe that its horn is medicine.

Nowadays, another kind of bovine is being killed, because people believe that its body can be use as medicine.
In cambodian word we call "TESS", but i dont know its name in scientific word.

Terri: please see comments 17 and 18. The specimen is most likely a Blackbuck, though I still haven't gotten round to confirming this with absolute certainty.