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Dr. Dove’s Unicorns

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Popular Science, 1936. “Bull with single horn is modern unicorn.”

Dr. W. Franklin Dove spent years of his career creating unicorns. Unicorn goats, unicorn cows. Even tri-horned animals roamed Dove’s barns.

Dove created these strangely-horned animals by removing immature “horn buds” from the heads of young animals and implanting the horn buds to a different location on the skull. He wanted to prove that horns did not grow straight out of the skull; instead, horn tissue developed separately and fused to the skull as it grew.

Understand that Dove was no crackpot scientist. Dove was a biologist at the University of Maine who studied animal production in the early 20th century. He had all the right collaborators and the right publications. Dove was a serious scientist.

As Dove created his unicorns, he realized that he was right—horn tissue was different than skull tissue. His studies also revealed the importance of connective tissue and “primordial” cells (aka stem cells) in early development.

But that’s not the most interesting part, at least not for University of Iowa neuroscientist Dr. Mark Blumberg. Blumberg believes Dove’s unicorns reveal how anatomy influences behavior. In his book Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution, Blumberg explains how one unicorn bull used its horn to gain dominance.

“Franklin Dove’s unicorn acquired, according to its creator, a ‘peculiar power.’ This bull used his single horn ‘as a prow to pass under fences and barriers in his path, or as a forward thrusting bayonet in his attacks,’” writes Blumberg.

This example of an animal using its unusual form—its freakiness—to its advantage inspired Blumberg to change the focus of his own research. Blumberg studies how neural pathways form between one’s brain and one’s limbs. Ever seen a dog twitching in its sleep? Blumberg thinks those twitches help the brain map out the body.

Normal cow skulls with horns next to skulls manipulated by Dr. Dove. From: W. Franklin Dove, The physiology of horn growth, Plate 2

But thinking about anomalies made Blumberg consider how the brain reacts when the body is altered. Like with the unicorn bull, body form could change behavior.

“When we think about instincts, we think of them as programs in our brains that tell us what to do,” Blumberg said. But that concept of instinct is wrong. “What’s wonderful about the nervous system is that it’s incredibly plastic.”

When it comes to mapping the body during sleep, Blumberg said, “We map what we have.” Our brains can override instinct and we can develop new behaviors, like a bull using a unicorn horn as a bayonet, a quadriplegic person playing wheelchair rugby, or Irish artist Christy Brown painting with his left foot.

“We have to develop our nervous systems for ourselves, they’re not identical,” Blumberg said. “We are all freaks—it’s just that the details are a little different.”


Dove, W. F. (1935), The physiology of horn growth: A study of the morphogenesis, the interaction of tissues, and the evolutionary processes of a mendelian recessive character by means of transplantation of tissues. Journal of Experimental Zoology, 69: 347–405. doi: 10.1002/jez.1400690302



Madeline McCurry-Schmidt About the Author: Madeline McCurry-Schmidt is a UC Davis graduate dedicated to writing about the biological sciences. She writes for the American Society of Animal Science and Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment and blogs at How Animals Do It in her free time. She also enjoys Googling images of unicorn cows. Follow on Twitter @mad_ellen Follow on Twitter @mad_ellen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. John Emerson 3:04 pm 11/29/2011

    Different behavior with a different anatomy is amazing only to someone who for someone who believes that all non-human creatures are blind automatons driven by instinct and incapable of learning anything at all. There was never any reason for this belief, which has never been held by people who worked closely with animals. As far as I can tell it’s just an assertion of Descartes, who had to distinguish man sharply from beasts because of the Inquisition’s interest in theological problems about free will .

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  2. 2. Jerzy New 4:39 am 11/30/2011

    This change in body perception is normal and necessary. Otherwise adult humans would constantly bump themselves, trying to pass through places suitable for small children. People couldn’t play tennis, because they would need to look at the rocket and the ball at each hit.

    BTW, when human drives a car, he develops similar body image of the car, understanding what space he needs to park and drive. More, he also anticipates behaviour of cars like people: “car in front of me is too slow and hesitant. He will try to turn somewhere soon”. Any interested neuroscientist might find it a good research topic.

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  3. 3. Mythusmage 12:15 am 12/1/2011

    If a college created a new type of maize, would that be a uni-corn?

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  4. 4. AnimalCO 1:09 pm 12/3/2011

    Mythusmage, someone really should smack you for that. ;)

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