Hunting remains the cornerstone of the North American model of wildlife conservation and management. Nevertheless, research has indicated the potential for hunting to adversely influence size of horn-like structures of some ungulates. In polygynous ungulates, mating success of males is strongly correlated with body size and size of horn-like structures; consequently, sexual selection has favored the development of large horns and antlers. Horn-like structures are biologically important and are of great cultural interest, both of which highlight the need to identify long-term trends in size of those structures, and understand the underlying mechanisms responsible for such trends. We evaluated trends in horn and antler size of trophy males (individuals exhibiting exceptionally large horns or antlers) recorded from 1900 to 2008 in Records of North American Big Game, which comprised >22,000 records among 25 trophy categories encompassing the geographic extent of species occupying North America. The long-term and broad-scale nature of those data neutralized localized effects of climate and population dynamics, making it possible to detect meaningful changes in size of horn-like structures among trophy males over the past century; however, ages of individual specimens were not available, which prevented us from evaluating age-class specific changes in size. Therefore, we used a weight-of-evidence approach based on differences among trophy categories in life-history characteristics, geographic distribution, morphological attributes, and harvest regimes to discriminate among competing hypotheses for explaining long-term trends in horn and antler size of trophy ungulates, and provide directions for future research. These hypotheses were young male age structure caused by intensive harvest of males (H1), genetic change as a result of selective male harvest (H2), a sociological effect (H3), effects of climate (H4), and habitat alteration (H5). Although the number of entries per decade has increased for most trophy categories, trends in size of horn-like structures were negative and significant for 11 of 17 antlered categories and 3 of 8 horned categories. Mean predicted declines during 1950–2008 were 1.87% and 0.68% for categories of trophy antlers and horns, respectively. Our results were not consistent with a sociological effect (H3), nutritional limitation imposed by climate (H4), or habitat alteration (H5) as potential explanations for long-term trends in size of trophies. In contrast, our results were consistent with a harvest-based explanation. Two of the 3 species that experienced the most conservative harvest regimes in North America (i.e., bighorn sheep [Ovis canadensis] and bison [Bison bison]) did not exhibit a significant, long-term trend in horn size. In addition, horn size of pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), which are capable of attaining peak horn size by 2–3 years of age, increased significantly over the past century. Both of those results provide support for the intensive-harvest hypothesis, which predicts that harvest of males has gradually shifted age structure towards younger, and thus smaller, males. The absence of a significant trend for mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus), which are difficult to accurately judge size of horns in the field, provided some support for the selective-harvest hypothesis. One other prediction that followed from the selective-harvest hypothesis was not supported; horned game were not more susceptible to reductions in size. A harvest-induced reduction in age structure can increase the number of males that are harvested prior to attaining peak horn or antler size, whereas genetic change imposed by selective harvest may be less likely to occur in free-ranging populations when other factors, such as age and nutrition, can override genetic potential for size. Long-term trends in the size of trophy horn-like structures provide the incentive to evaluate the appropriateness of the current harvest paradigm, wherein harvest is focused largely on males; although the lack of information on age of specimens prevented us from rigorously differentiating among causal mechanisms. Disentangling potential mechanisms underpinning long-term trends in horn and antler size is a daunting task, but one that is worthy of additional research focused on elucidating the relative influence of nutrition and effects (both demographic and genetic) of harvest.
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Hunting remains the cornerstone of the North American model of wildlife conservation and management. Nevertheless, research has indicated the potential
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