The keratinous horns of bovids are used in intraspecific combat to gain access to females in oestrus. Horn sheath keratin is a composite material consisting of stiff protein fibres and a pliant protein matrix. Unlike antlers, horns are permanent structures which are likely to accumulate damage during fighting. Therefore, horn sheath keratin should be resistant to fracture (tough) and insensitive to surface defects (scratches and cracks) which may weaken horns by acting as stress concentrators.
The effect of water on the toughness and notch-sensitivity of horn sheath keratin was investigated in three-point bending and tensile tests. Several measures of toughness were made on dry (0% water content), fresh (20%) and wet (40%) horn keratin, including total work of fracture, Gurney & Hunt work of fracture, critical strain energy release rate and critical stress intensity factor.
The mean total work of fracture of fresh horn is about 40 kJ/m2 which is relatively much greater than most biological and synthetic materials. Most of the work of fracture is due to plastic yielding of the matrix (50–75%); the rest is due to crack-tip specific fracture mechanisms such as fibre pull-out and Cook Gordon crack-stopping. Dehydration reduces the total work of fracture of horn keratin by preventing the yielding of the matrix.
The strength of fresh and wet horn is insensitive to notches, but dry horn is very notch-sensitive. Therefore, bovids must avoid dehydration of their horns due to the desiccating effect of the environment. The ‘horning’ behaviour of bovids may be a maintenance activity which ensures that the horn sheath is adequately hydrated to remain tough and notch-insensitive.