Bighorn sheep are majestic animals, classically associated with epic mountain landscapes and harsh environments. Anyone who has pursued these animals through their natural habitat knows that it takes stamina, strength, and determination. A strong understanding of how bighorn sheep live and interact with their surroundings is essential to success on a sheep hunt. Read on to discover ten things you might not have known about bighorn sheep.
Thanks to their wide-set eyes, sheep can see in a large radius of more than 300 degrees. This makes them excellent at spotting predators from all sides. Their distance vision is also surprisingly adept; sheep can detect movement over half a mile away, giving them plenty of time to climb to safety.
A hoof in two parts
A bighorn sheep hoof has two distinct parts; a softer inner part and a hard outer part. The hard outer part is a modified toenail that helps the sheep hook onto small ledges when climbing; they need less than a two-inch ledge to stand on! The inner portion of the hoof is soft and concave, which allows the sheep to suction onto hard surfaces.
Life on the ledge is a great way to avoid less agile predators like coyotes or lynx, but not all threats come from below. Golden eagles will target bighorn sheep, in particular the young lambs. The eagles knock the young and vulnerable lambs off of precarious ledges and cliffs, causing them to fall to their death. The birds can then scavenge on the sheep.
Horns all around
Both male and female bighorn sheep sport horns, but only males have truly big horns. Female horns are short spikes, which they use for rooting when feeding, and will occasionally use for fighting. Male horns are sexual characteristics that demonstrate to females that males are healthy and have high testosterone. Of course, males also fight using their horns in the fall to establish dominance within a herd.
When fall arrives, male bighorn sheep will crash together head first to establish dominance. They will collide at upwards of 40 miles per hour, generating six times the amount of force that would be required to crack a human skull and more than enough force to cause a serious concussion. So what prevents the sheep skulls from cracking? Bighorn sheep skulls are not fully fused together as adults, allowing the pieces to shift and absorb some impact. However, it’s not the skull that absorbs most of the impact; it’s the horns. Horns are composed of a boney horn core with a keratin sheath that grows over top, similar to human fingernails. The horn core has a unique structure that is porous and almost foam-like, which allows it to absorb most of the impact from a ram collision.
Bighorn sheep are closely related to domesticated sheep and goats. As large, herbivorous animals, bighorn sheep need to maximize the amount of nutrients they get from every meal. Sheep are ruminants, meaning they have multi-chambered stomachs.
After eating a large meal of grass or other plants, sheep will retreat to a ledge where they can rest and regurgitate their meal. Re-chewing and re-swallowing their meal breaks it down further, making it easier for bacteria in the gut to break things down even further as food travels through the four chambers of the sheep’s stomach.
Thanks to their four-chambered stomach, sheep are also exceptional at absorbing the maximum amount of water from their food. Unlike with other animal scat, it is almost impossible to tell how recently a bighorn sheep has passed through an area and left their droppings, as they are dry in the center as soon as they’re dropped. Within just a few hours, the droppings will be completely dried.
There were once estimated to be more than 2 million bighorn sheep throughout North America, but their numbers dropped significantly in the 1800’s and 1900’s. Due to increased hunting pressure from European settlers and introduced diseases from domesticated sheep and goats, bighorn sheep were almost driven to extinction. During the 1930’s to 1960’s significant conservation efforts were made to preserve bighorn habitats and protect the species. Today, hunting permits and hunting societies fund most bighorn sheep conservation efforts.
Although bighorn sheep can live in large herds with up to 100 individuals, they are separated into distinctly male and female groups. Females and young will stay together, and males that are born will leave the herd when they reach sexual maturity. These bachelors then head out to find a male herd to join or may live on their own for a while. Male and female herds come for the breeding season.
Bighorn sheep are found from Northern Mexico to Alaska and Northern Canada. All bighorn sheep are Ovis canadensis, but there are seven distinct subspecies identified throughout North America:
- Audubon’s bighorn sheep — extinct (Ovis canadensis auduboni)
- California bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis californiana)
- Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis canadensis)
- Peninsular bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis cremnobates)
- Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis mexicana)
- Nelson’s bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)
- Weems’ bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis weemsi)
Knowing more about bighorn sheep is a great way to increase your success when on the hunt. Taking this new knowledge out into the field will equip you to better understand how these animals live their lives and move around their natural habitat.