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FAIRBANKS - Walking up to the trophy Dall sheep ram he shot on Sept. 12, John Keech wasn't as impressed by the massive size of the ram's two full-curl horns, both of which measured more than 40 inches, as he was by a third, smaller horn growing out of the middle of the sheep's nose.
"When I got up there and saw it, I said, 'Holy cow, what the heck is that?"' Keech said.
Perched on the bridge of the sheep's nose, just below its eyes, was a chunk of horn roughly the size of a charcoal briquet.
"I thought it was a wart or something from a nose injury, but it's actual horn material," Keech said.
Keech hadn't seen it when he was looking at the sheep through a spotting scope to make sure it was a legal animal - one with "full-curl" horns or the tips of both horns broken off. It may have been that the tip of the sheep's horn hid the growth, or that Keech wasn't paying attention to the sheep's nose.
"I was concentrating on making sure it was legal," he said.
The 38-year-old Keech has been hunting sheep for 15 years and said he has never seen anything like it.
"I've never heard of anything with a third horn," Keech said. "I thought it was pretty interesting."
So did experts at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks when Keech took the horns and skull in to be sealed.
State wildlife biologists, including Keech's younger brother, Mark, gathered round to examine the growth and speculate about what it was and how it got there.
Unlike a normal horn, the third horn on Keech's sheep had no bone structure underneath. It is attached to the skull only by soft tissue.
Steve Arthur, the department's Dall sheep expert, has seen and heard of similar growths on sheep but said they are rare. The third horn on Keech's sheep is "definitely not the usual state of affairs," Arthur said, and is probably a genetic anomaly.
Sheep horns are different than moose or caribou antlers. Unlike antlers, which grow and are shed annually, horns are permanent. Horns consist of a bony core covered by a sheath of keratin, a fibrous protein forming the main structural component of hair, feathers, hooves, claws and horns.
Horns can develop odd growth patterns resulting from injuries to the bone core, which has a blood supply and living cells, Arthur said. He has seen sheep horns that appear to be twisted, like a piece of licorice.
"If you damage the horn core you can cause an infection, which causes a weak spot in the horn, which can cause a growth pattern or cause it to break off," Arthur said.
He recalled a photo a sheep hunter brought in a few years ago with a similar growth as the one on Keech's sheep "about the size of your thumb" in the same place.
That incident prompted Arthur to look into horn abnormalities. The unusual growths are similar to what is known as a scur in livestock, he said. Cattle that have been dehorned as young calves sometimes grow a partially developed horn if all the horn growth cells are not removed, he said. But scurs typically grow where the horn was removed, not in an entirely different place.
"It's a fairly complex process growing these horns," Arthur said. "I guess it's not surprising things go haywire every once in a while."