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Locking Horns Over Horns
27 December 2000 7:00 pm
Researchers are locking horns over whether the headgear shown below belongs to a mysterious and possibly extinct mountain goat or to a common ox that has been refashioned by local residents. Each side seems to be digging in for some serious headbutting over the authenticity of their specimens.
In 1994, German scientists declared that the horns belonged to a previously unknown goatlike mammal, Pseudonovibos spiralis, that lives in the isolated Annamite mountains of southeast Asia. Although no scientist has ever seen the beast, it is thought to hail from the same region that has produced several other newly described mammals over the last decade, including the antelope-like saola and a giant barking deer. Conservationists even added spiralis to their list of endangered animals.
But in two papers to be published this month in Les Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences, Arnoult Seveau of the Zoological Society of Paris and two colleagues argue that four 70-year-old horn specimens that they have studied are artful forgeries, created by heating, twisting, and carving the bone sheaths. Molecular studies, they add, suggest that the skullcaps come from a common species of ox. Seveau spent 7 months scouring Cambodian forests and meat markets but found only "myths and legends--not even the smallest thing to suggest that it is a real animal." The horns, he suggests, were painstakingly manufactured to cash in on local tales of a mythical creature whose powdered horns could cure snakebites.
While Seveau may have uncovered some fake horns, spiralis "is a real animal," says Robert Timm, mammal curator at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum in Lawrence. In the current Journal of Zoology, Timm says his museum's two sets of antique horns--including the one above--show no "evidence of tampering." The most likely reason that Seveau found no new evidence of spiralis, he says, is "that it is extinct."