Hierarchical structure and compressive deformation mechanisms of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) horn

Wei Huang, Alireza Zaheri, Jae Young Jung, Horacio D. Espinosa*, Joanna Mckittrick

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) rams hurl themselves at each other at speeds of ∼9 m/s (20 mph) to fight for dominance and mating rights. This necessitates impact resistance and energy absorption mechanisms, which stem from material-structure components in horns. In this study, the material hierarchical structure as well as correlations between the structure and mechanical properties are investigated. The major microstructural elements of horns are found as tubules and cell lamellae, which are oriented with (∼30⁰) angle with respect to each other. The cell lamellae contain keratin cells, in the shape of pancakes, possessing an average thickness of ∼2 µm and diameter of ∼20–30 µm. The morphology of keratin cells reveals the presence of keratin fibers and intermediate filaments with diameter of ∼200 nm and ∼12 nm, respectively, parallel to the cell surface. Quasi-static and high strain rate impact experiments, in different loading directions and hydration states, revealed a strong strain rate dependency for both dried and hydrated conditions. A strong anisotropy behavior was observed under impact for the dried state. The results show that the radial direction is the most preferable impact orientation because of its superior energy absorption. Detailed failure mechanisms under the aforementioned conditions are examined by bar impact recovery experiments. Shear banding, buckling of cell lamellae, and delamination in longitudinal and transverse direction were identified as the cause for strain softening under high strain rate impact. While collapse of tubules occurs in both quasi-static and impact tests, in radial and transverse directions, the former leads to more energy absorption and impact resistance. Statement of Significance Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) horns show remarkable impact resistance and energy absorption when undergoing high speed impact during the intraspecific fights. The present work illustrates the hierarchical structure of bighorn sheep horn at different length scales and investigates the energy dissipation mechanisms under different strain rates, loading orientations and hydration states. These results demonstrate how horn dissipates large amounts of energy, thus provide a new path to fabricate energy absorbent and crashworthiness engineering materials.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalActa Biomaterialia
StatePublished - Dec 2017


  • Anisotropy
  • Compressive deformation
  • Impact resistance
  • Keratin cells
  • Sheep horn

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biomaterials
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Molecular Biology


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