THE legend of the unicorn has been punctured. The mythical beast with a horn protruding from the centre of its head, blessed with healing powers and a temper tamed only by a virgin's touch is, in reality, just a deer with a wonky gene.
The discovery in an Italian nature reserve of a deer with a single antler growing from the centre of its head is being hailed as an explanation for the ancient belief in a horned horse capable of miracles.
The one-year-old roe deer was born in a research centre's park in the Tuscan town of Prato, near Florence. He is believed to have a genetic flaw as his twin has two horns. The deers' mother was brought to the park several years ago after being hit by a car in the Apennine mountains.
Yesterday, Gilberto Tozzi, director of the Centre of Natural Sciences, said: "This is fantasy becoming reality."
He said similar anomalies among deer may have inspired the unicorn myth. The unicorn, a horse-like creature with magical powers, has appeared in legends and stories throughout history, from ancient and medieval texts to the adventures of Harry Potter.
Mr Tozzi said: "This shows that in past times there could have been animals with this anomaly. It's not like they dreamed it up."
Single-horned deer are rare, but even more unusual is the central positioning of the horn, experts said.
"Generally, the horn is on one side rather than being at the centre. This looks like a complex case," said Fulvio Fraticelli, the scientific director of Rome's zoo. He said the position of the horn might be the result of a trauma early in the animal's life.
The discovery of the "unicorn" in Italy is appropriate given the nation's passion for the creature. In the 13th century, Marco Polo described his encounter with a "unicorn" in Java as follows: "They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single, large, black horn in the middle of the forehead … they have a head like a wild boar's … they spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins." He was, in fact, describing a rhinoceros.
In one of his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci also wrote: "The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself for the love it bears to fair maidens, forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it."
Colin Seddon, manager of the SSPCA Scottish Wildlife Rescue Centre in Dunfermline, said the animal, if found in Scotland, would be shot by gamekeepers.
"It's a freak. A poor-quality animal and not a good specimen," he said.
"We would put it down as we couldn't release it back into the wild. It would be dangerous to other animals – the antler would be like a lance, lethal during clashes with other stags."