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Pronghorn Reverie

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The land around Magdalena seems to stretch forever, not a house in sight. Cattle, like this rugged crossbred bull, roam free, constrained only by cattle guards on the roads; thousands and thousands of acres where they can graze, fight and paw the ground. He makes my old Buck look like a real couch potato, doesn't he?
They share the acreage with bands of pronghorn, North America's bizarre un-antelope, a true relict of the Pleistocene. They're not deer or antelope, but more closely related to the bovids, and are in their own family, Antilocapridae.
What distant ancestors pronghorns may have had were probably confined to, and rendered extinct on, the North American continent. At one time there were more than 100 million pronghorn running the plains of North America, and they even outnumbered bison. Once market hunters had extirpated the bison, they turned to pronghorns, and numbers fell to less than 34,000 by the 1920's. With stringent protection efforts, pronghorn herds have rebounded to approximately .75 million animals.
They're set apart from antelopes by their peculiar horns, which have a bony core and a keratinous sheath made of fused hair. While antelopes never shed their horns, pronghorn males lose the sheaths every spring, tossing them off with a quick head throw. Female pronghorns also have horns, but shed the sheaths more irregularly.Here's a male and a female. Note the massive horns of the male, the short, blackish mane, and the bizarre, high, protruding set of their eyes. Pronghorns have amazing long-distance vision, and their eyes are set high and wide, like a woodcock's. They've got the equivalent of 8-power binoculars, and thanks to the protruding eye sockets, 320 degrees of vision! They're fast, too, capable of bursts of nearly 60 mph, and sustained speeds of 30 mph--the fastest North American animal, second in speed only to the cheetah in the world! I've summarized Tomas Tabor's excellent article in Countryside Magazine, and you can find the whole text here. Dang, I love the Web, almost as much as I loved seeing this band of ancient Americans loping along the road to Magdalena.Sunlight and shadow race across the plains as the pronghorns sift through the cholla.

Just back from my show in Pennsylvania. It was terrific. I am liquid with exhaustion. 7 hrs. home through driving rain, but thank goodness no snow or ice. Full report in the future.


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