What’s the Difference Between Horns and Antlers and More Questions From Our Readers

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Ask Smithsonian
Colin Johnson

Is there any difference between horns and antlers?

P. Emmett, Ellicott City, Maryland

Boy, is there. Horns, says Gilbert Myers, assistant curator at the National Zoo, consist of bone encased in the protein keratin, which is also found in human fingernails. Horns are generally permanent, and won’t regrow if they’re damaged or removed. By contrast, antlers consist of bone covered by living skin known as “velvet,” which supplies blood as the bone grows. Antlers will regrow after they fall off, which they do seasonally. You can see horns on many kinds of animals, and on males and females alike, but antlers grow on species in the deer family, and typically on males.

Why are there so many more islands in the Pacific Ocean than in the Atlantic?

Stephen Goldfarb, Atlanta

Oceanic islands are created by the collision of tectonic plates; those collisions create volcanoes and vents that channel molten rock from the earth’s depths to its surface, where it cools and sticks out above the water’s surface. The Pacific is relatively island-rich because it’s much bigger and geologically more complex than the Atlantic, says R.D.K. Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian. Not for nothing is the marine arc that ranges from New Zealand to Alaska to Chile known as the Ring of Fire.

Did slaves communicate information about the Underground Railroad through their quilt designs?

Catherine Duncan, Oregon City, Oregon

That idea was popularized in the 1999 book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, for which authors Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard relied on a South Carolina family’s oral history. But, says Elaine Nichols, curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, without documentary evidence, scholars remain skeptical.

When John Wesley Powell was directing the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology in the 19th century, did it collect audio recordings of Native Americans speaking their languages?

J. Schaffer, Bethesda, Maryland

Yes, the bureau collected recordings to go with its voluminous research on Native American languages, says Jake Homiak, director of the National Anthropological Archives, where they are now located. But most were added after Powell died, in 1902. Digitized versions are available at siris.si.edu.

While scientists are busy seeking fancy names for newfound planets, tell me: How did earth get its name?

Margaret Kleinman, Hackensack, New Jersey

Every planet in the solar system is named for a Greek or Roman deity—except ours. It was named long before anybody even knew it was a planet, says Matt Shindell, curator of space history at the National Air and Space Museum. Which may be why its name is simply descriptive: “earth” is derived from the Old English word for “dirt.”

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