Sunday, August 2, 2020

Pronghorn Antelope - or not…

Credit:  City of Tucson
1.  In 1872 homesteader Dr. Brewster M. Higley left his Indiana home and moved to the prairie of Kansas to claim land under the Homestead Act of 1862.  His new home on the plains inspired his poetic creativity, penning a poem entitled “My Western Home” which was good enough to be published in the local newspaper in 1872.  A friend, Daniel E. Kelley, wrote a melody on his guitar for Dr. Brewster’s poem and the new song soon became a popular melody for both town folks and local range cowboys.  Higley’s poem/song spread across the American West in various versions with several local names before becoming universally known as “Home on the Range.”   Over the years it became the unofficial anthem of the American West and became immortalized as both a movie and hugely successful pop songs, sung by the likes of Gene Autry, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. 

Credit:  NPS
2.  “Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam where the deer and antelope play….” say the lyrics, but there are no true antelopes in the Americas, as the true antelope species are found only in Africa and Southeast Asia.  But the “antelope-like” animals that Dr. Higley had written about and almost every American school kids has and continues to sing about is a hardy and cunning little creature known as the North American pronghorn.  The North American pronghorn, Antilocapra americana, is the only surviving member of a specific group of mammals that evolved in North America over the last 20 million years.  

Credit:  USDA
3.  Pronghorns are artiodactyl - even-toed ungulates. All species of the artiodactyla order are hoofed animals that support their weight equally on the third and fourth of their five toes.  There are some 220 land living artiodactyl in the world, including pigs, peccaries, camels, llamas, giraffes, hippopotamuses, sheep, goats and cattle.  Some pretty famous distant relatives of the pronghorns include aquatic artiodactyl species like whales, porpoises and dolphins - all of which evolved from even-toed ungulates.  

Credit:  NPS
4.  During the Pleistocene epoch of some 12.6 million - 11,700 years ago, some other 12 species of the pronghorn’s family Antilocapridae roamed across North America.  Three species beyond the pronghorn existed when modern man arrived in North America but all three of those species are now extinct.  Only the pronghorn survived as an indigenous mammal to the interior regions of western and central North America.  The animal has been called by various local names including prairie antelope, prong buck, American antelope and pronghorn antelope. 

Credit:  NPS
5.  Pronghorns are considered one of North America’s most impressive land animals.  They hold several impressive records such as having the longest land migration of any land animal in the continental United States traveling over 150 miles each way between Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin and Grand Teton National Park.  Only the 1200 mile round trip journey of the great herds of caribou in the extreme northern regions of North America travel farther. 

Credit:  Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher
6.  Pronghorns are the fastest animal in North America and second fastest in the world only to the cheetahs of Africa.  Pronghorns can run upwards of 65 mph (105 kph) and can maintain that speed over long distances.  Pronghorns have large eyes which can see some 320 degrees around and thus their vision is considered excellent.   On the flat open prairies in which they live, they can see predators from far way and use their sensational speed to quickly move to safety.

Credit: Texas Farm Bureau
7.   Pronghorns have a body shaped like a deer with long legs, short tail and a long snout.  Their fur tends to  be in shades of brown to reddish-brown along with white markings on their face, stomach, rump and necks.  Their rumps have extra long hair that stand erect when the animal is frightened.  Adult males, like the one above, then to be about 4.5 feet (1.4 m) long, 3 feet (1 m) tall and weigh between 90 and 150 pounds (41 - 68 kg).  Both males and females have a pair of short horns.  The male’s horns are larger at around 10 - 12 inches (25 - 30 cm) in length.  Pronghorn’s horns point backward toward the rump except for a small notch or prong that points forward and gives rise to the animal’s name.   The outer materials of their horns are shed and regrown each year.

Credit:  NPS
8.  Pronghorns mate during late summer and early fall resulting in the females being pregnant during the winter months.  Males establish breeding territories and fight the males for breeding dominance.  Aggressive and heated physical conflict arise between competing males.  Once the dominant male is determined, he will breed with multiple females in the group.  Females have a gestation period of about 250 days.  One to two fawns are born in the following spring.  Fawns are basically helpless at birth, requiring a day of life before they can easily stand.  For this reason, fawns are very susceptible to predators at birth and must be protected by their mothers. 

Credit:  BLM
9.  Pronghorn fawns weigh about 4 - 12 pounds (2 - 5 kg) at birth.  Once they become steady on their legs, a pronghorn fawn will be able to sprint at a speed on nearly 25 mph (40 kph).  But for the first few days of life, the young fawns tend to stay hidden quietly in tall grasses while their mothers graze nearby.  After a week of nursing, both the does and the fawns rejoin the larger herd.  Male pronghorns play no role in the raising of the fawns.  Fawns will stay with their mothers for nearly a year before become totally independent.  Pronghorns are thought to have a lifespan in the wild of nearly 10 - 15 years. 

Credit:  Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher
10.  Pronghorns were once found on the open ranges  from Saskatchewan, Canada south to Mexico including all four deserts of the American Southwest.  Before the arrival of the Europeans, their numbers were in the millions.  For most Native American tribes of the West, pronghorns were a source of food, clothing, tools and shelter.  Within Apache traditions, the pronghorn was once a beautiful young woman who became a pronghorn and thus should never be hunted or harmed.  The Hopi pronghorn kachina is believed to bring rain and make the grasses grow.  The pronghorn, as a totem, focuses on knowledge and wisdom and assists one on their spiritual journey.  Shown above are pictographs of pronghorns found on a wall of Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona.  

Credit: BLM
11.   Pronghorns cannot leap over fencing like a deer.  If a fence is encountered, they must crawl under, through  or go around it.  Thus they prefer grazing on the open plains, fields, grasslands of their vast western range.  Yet they can also be found forging in the deserts, and western basins like the yucca forest seen above.
Today the herds of pronghorns are mainly found in Wyoming, Montana, northeast California, southeast Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.  One of the highest concentration of pronghorns today is found in Wyoming in the Red Desert and Yellowstone regions.

Credit: NPS
12.  Pronghorns are herbivores.  The eat the many grasses found on the open range as well as forms and sagebrush.  In fact, they can eat plants found in the grasslands that are toxic to domestic cattle.  They have a “two stomach” digestive system where they quickly eat and swallow the plant material and then at a later time, regurgitate the food in what is known as “cud”, chew it again breaking the plant material into smaller pieces so that more nutrients can be absorbed.  They seldom drink water as they receive all the water they need from the plants that they eat and digest.  Pronghorns are known to have gone months without drinking standing water at a watering hole or stream.

Credit: NPS
13.  When Dr. Higley wrote his magical poem about where “the deer and antelope play” there were still millions of pronghorns roaming free across the American West.  Today, biologists estimate that only some 700,000 pronghorn still roam free.  Fencing, coyotes, hunting and loss of habitat are the primary threats to this old and ancient resident of the American plains.  Active conservation efforts are found in every region where these beautiful and a amazing animals still trek.  Meriwether Lewis of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 - 1806 wrote of his fascination with the animal after an encounter with a herd of pronghorns, “I had this day an opportunity of witnessing the agility and superior fleetness of this animal, which was to me really astonishing.  When I beheld the rapidity of their flight along the ridge before me, it appeared rather the rapid flight of birds than the motion of quadrupeds.”  And even though the American pronghorn is not a true antelope as immortalized in Dr. Higley’s poem, it certainly remains a national treasure and a 20 million year old symbol of the American West.

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