Published on February 5, 2013 by Amy
Entirely unique on this planet, the Pronghorn’s scientific name, Antilocapra Americana, means “American antelope goat.” But the deer-like Pronghorn is neither antelope nor goat — it is the sole surviving member of an ancient family dating back 20 million years.
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The Pronghorn is the only animal in the world with branched horns (not antlers) and the only animal in the world to shed its horns, as if they were antlers. The Pronghorn, like sheep and goats, has a gall bladder, and like giraffes, lacks dewclaws. If that weren’t enough, the Pronghorn is the fastest animal in the western hemisphere, running in 20-foot bounds at up to 60 miles per hour. Unlike the Cheetah, speedburner of the African plains, the Pronghorn can run for hours at quite a fast pace.
The fleet-footed, large-eyed pronghorn is an animal of the plains. Adapted for speed and for seeing long distances, it inhabits areas where both its sight and its running will be unimpaired by woodland vegetation. Water in the immediate vicinity is not a requisite because the pronghorn is so adapted physiologically that it can go for long periods without drinking. Apparently, it has the ability to conserve body water and to produce metabolic water.
Antilocapra Americana occurs from southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan, Canada through the western United States to Hidalgo, Baja California, and western Sonora, Mexico.
Pronghorns are graceful, strikingly colored deer- or antelope-like animals with stocky bodies and long, thin legs. They are a bit smaller than white-tailed deer, adult males (bucks) commonly weighing from about 100 to 130 pounds, females (does) 75 to 100.
The primary color ranges from brown to reddish-brown to light tan, offset by a white rump and belly and two white stripes on the throat. A short dark mane grows along the neck, and males also sport a black mask and black patches on the sides of the neck.
A long, woolly undercoat is covered by coarse, brittle hairs. The hairs can be erected at will, aiding pronghorns in adjusting to both heat and cold. Individual hairs are loosely attached. This results in the continuous shedding that makes pronghorn skins nearly worthless as rugs.
Pronghorn bucks sport black, erect horns that average about twelve inches in length (but may reach eighteen inches) and are tilted to the side, reaching past the tips of their ears. They are remarkable for the prongs, or branches, that give the animal its common name. The horns resemble giant, backward curving hooks with coat hangers on the front. (They somehow remind me of can openers!)
Most females also sport horns. On average, they are less than half as long as those borne by males, rarely longer than their ears, and are rarely pronged.
As in antelopes, goats, sheep, and cattle, the horns consist of a bony core covered by an outer sheath. However, pronghorns are the only mammals that shed their sheaths. Well, sort of. Actually, there are other mammals that shed their sheaths in fragments; pronghorns shed theirs whole.
Males shed their horns each fall after the breeding season and grow back new ones by the following summer. Females shed their horns irregularly.
An interesting trait of pronghorns is their highly developed sense of curiosity. They insist on examining at close range any unrecognized object, particularly one that is in motion. Because of this, it is possible for man to lure the animals within close range by hiding behind a bush and waving a handkerchief or other object slowly back and forth. Indians, and sometimes our present-day hunters, have utilized this ruse in bagging them.
Sometimes, pronghorns are their own worst enemies. William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, reported, “antelopes are curious and will approach any thing which appears in motion.” The famous naturalist John James Audubon later tested Clark’s observation, lying on his back and kicking his feet in the air in sight of a band of pronghorns. One of the animals approached to within about sixty yards!
Early hunters resorted to such antics to lure pronghorns within range of their guns. But pronghorns aren’t stupid. While living in the North Dakota Badlands in the 1880s, Theodore Roosevelt noted that few pronghorns would fall for that trick.
Another peculiar trait is their disinclination to jump over fences or other objects. A low brush fence no more than a meter high will ordinarily turn the animals, and it is not uncommon for small bands to be reduced almost to the point of starvation within a fenced enclosure while plenty of food is available on the outside. They can jump over moderately high obstructions, however, when hardpressed. Ordinarily, they crawl under or between the wires of barbed-wire fences.
Pronghorns have a particular fondness for flowers and fruits. The flowers of cutleaf daisy, white daisy, stickleaf, paper flower, and woolly senecio are consumed in large amounts.
What animals eat pronghorns? Before the West was tamed, packs of wolves cooperated in chasing down pronghorns. Now that wolves have been wiped out over most of the pronghorn’s range, the coyote is their most important predator. Bobcats are important predators in some areas. Golden eagles are reported to prey on fawns in areas close to bluffs.
Pronghorn does (females) usually first breed at an age of 16 to 17 months, bucks (males) at about three years. In spring and summer, breeding-age males stake out territories, which they defend from other males. Females travel freely between these territories.
In late summer and early fall, bucks engage in mock battles. A lone buck may even challenge an imaginary rival.
In northern pronghorn country, females begin paying more attention in September and October, when bucks may gather harems of as many as fifteen does in their territories. (Pronghorns are polygamous. In other words, a male may mate with several females.) Pronghorns may begin breeding in July or August farther south.
Pronghorn gestation (or pregnancy) lasts about 250 days, and the young are born in May or June. The first birth usually produces a single young. In later years, does usually bear twins.
A newborn pronghorn, or fawn, weighs from about five to nine pounds and sports a gray coat until it’s about three months old. Newborns are odorless and lie motionless for hours while their mothers are away grazing. The mothers return to nurse their young three or four times a day.
Pronghorns once roamed North America by the millions. They may have even been more abundant than the bison.
Pronghorns were seen by members of Coronado’s Spanish expedition into the Southwest. But nearly three centuries passed before Lewis and Clark officially discovered and described the species. William Clark shot the first one on September 14, 1804, near the mouth of Ball Creek in present Lyman County, South Dakota. (They had earlier seen pronghorns not far away, below the mouth of the Niobrara River.)
Clark compared the animal to a sheep and antelope, but called it a “goat.” Meriwether Lewis called it an “antelope,” the name that stuck.
Explorers and settlers who followed in the explorers’ footprints killed pronghorns for meat and sport. Pronghorns were displaced by cattle, fields, fences, and roads. By 1908, less than 20,000 remained.
Fortunately, the pronghorn received protection just in time. Pronghorns found refuge in early national parks and wildlife refuges.