A living unicorn has been discovered in the Tuscany region of Italy – that is, if you define “unicorn” as a beast with a single horn.

Unicorn deer

Italian unicorn deer.

ROME – A deer with a single horn in the center of its head — much like the fabled, mythical unicorn — has been spotted in a nature preserve in Italy, park officials said Wednesday. The 1-year-old Roe Deer — nicknamed “Unicorn” — was born in captivity in the research center’s park in the Tuscan town of Prato, near Florence, Tozzi said. He is believed to have been born with a genetic flaw; his twin has two horns. Single-horned deer are rare but not unheard of — but even more unusual is the central positioning of the horn, experts said. “Generally, the horn is on one side (of the head) rather than being at the center. This looks like a complex case,” said Fulvio Fraticelli, scientific director of Rome’s zoo. He said the position of the horn could also be the result of a trauma early in the animal’s life. (MSN-AP, June 11, 2008)

Apparently the mother deer was injured by a car while pregnant with the twins, possibly causing the horn to be shifted to the middle of the head. The deer may not be a “unicorn” for long; it will soon shed its horn, as deer generally do, and it is not certain that the single horn will regrow as it is. A good video of the deer in the Tuscany park can be seen, with useful commentary, on the Discovery Chanel web site.

Unicorn goat

Otter G’Zel and Lancelot, the unicorn goat.

Other unicorn animals have been created, notably the unicorn goat produced by Morning Glory and her husband Otter G’Zell, in the 1980s. The exact technique was not revealed, but it most likely involved surgically removing one horn bud and moving the other to the center of the head, while the animal was very young. This may be what happened accidentally to the Italian deer.

In the early 1900s several Nepalese one-horned sheep were given to the Prince of Wales and exhibited at the London Zoological Gardens in 1906. It is thought that these were also surgically manipulated in an effort to make them more valuable.

In the 1930s, Dr. W. F. Dove of Maine University did unicorn experiments with a bull. According to The Unicorn Garden:

Unicorn bull

Dr. Dove’s unicorn bull.

In 1933 Dove took a day-old Ayrshire calf, surgically removed its horn buds, trimmed them to fit together and replanted them in the centre of its forehead. As the young bull grew, the buds fused and produced a single solid, straight and pointed horn a foot or so in length which proved equally useful for fighting and uprooting fences, far superior in fact to the usual brace of curved ones when it comes to confronting a rival. Dr Dove’s Unicorn bull became the leader of its herd and was very rarely challenged by other males. Which is not altogether surprising if you think about it. When bulls charge each other the main aim (as with male deer) is to crack skulls until one or other can take no more. Charging towards an enemy who has a spike aimed right between your eyes is a different game altogether. So effective was the single horn that one almost wonders why evolution did not do Dr Dove’s work for him. An interesting side effect of the experiment was the nature of the bull’s temperament. Being secure in his strength led him to become unusually gentle and mild mannered, echoing what has so often been said of the true Unicorn’s nature.

Dr Dove published the results of his experiment in an article titled “The Physiology of Horn Growth” in the Journal of Experimental Zoology (Jan 1935, Vol 69, No 3); and another “Artificial Production of the Fabulous Unicorn” in Scientific Monthly (May 1936, Volume 42; pages 431-436).

So perhaps we can add to the more commonly assumed sources of the unicorn legend – the rhinocerus and the narwhal – this sort of natural or artificial “unicorn”, ordinary horned beasts that sometimes, by accident or by design, produce only a single horn.