Which creature enjoys climbing cliffs, blends in with mountain slopes, and carries an iconic headpiece?
Bighorn sheep are somewhat common where I live in Southern California (maybe it’s why the NFL Rams decided to come to Los Angeles). They can be seen in various mountain ranges, coming down to valleys for water or returning to their cliff homes in the evening to avoid predation. Although they travel through so many places, they aren’t easy to find. As someone who lives right next to the mountains, ironically it took me traveling three hours south and visiting a hot desert park to encounter them. These beloved icons that camouflage with the rocky landscapes they inhabit made my weekend trip to Anza Borrego Desert State Park – home of the ‘borrego’ (aka bighorn sheep) and the Cahuilla people – all the more special.
Quite the climber
Bighorn sheep were made for the mountains. Their incredible balancing act is thanks to their split hooves with rough bottoms, naturally giving them the grip they need to leap from rock to rock. Outer tough hooves provide protection and prevent sheep from getting caught in between crevices, while the inner pad in between each hoof is flexible in order to maneuver uneven terrain. Their short legs are great for jumping, and their wide-set eyes allow them to see far and wide, which is needed for navigating such a tricky landscape.
From mountains to desert
Bighorn sheep dominate rugged landscapes, high altitudes, and dry climates. They live in some of the hottest regions throughout North America. Their notable headwear that give them their namesake, their horns, consist of bone with a surrounding sheath filled with blood vessels. This distribution of blood allows them to cool off in the desert heat.
As opportunistic feeders, bighorn sheep take advantage of any and every edible plant. They often eat cacti, shrubs, and grasses, but will forage for anything green if their favorite meals are not available.
Brawns and brains
Despite being vegetarians, bighorn sheep can be strong and aggressive. During mating season, rams clash heads to assert dominance. In each group (or band) of rams, there is a hierarchy, and the higher ranking members get most of the ladies (or ewes). Rankings are based on age, size, and especially horn size. Usually, rams aren’t ready for the big leagues until they turn seven years old.
Watch these sheep show the L.A. football team what a true ram looks like:
And see how they avoid concussions:
Now time for a riddle:
Have you heard about the ram that got in trouble for insulting a female sheep? Read ahead to find out what he did (the answer is at the bottom of this email).
Hardy but not invincible
Bighorn sheep are social creatures that prefer to live in large groups. Traveling in numbers gives them a better chance of avoiding predators, and it gives them plenty of opportunities to interact with each other. Unfortunately, this preference for large groups also makes them susceptible to diseases. When males reach a certain age, they are expected to leave their mothers and search for other young males to form a group. This desire to be around others can lead to loneliness if they are unable to find a group, and this loneliness may prompt them to search outside of their species for company. If they find themselves in the midst of domestic sheep, they become even more vulnerable to disease and can spread it to other bighorn sheep.
Other threats include trophy hunting and competition for space and food with farm animals. Although hunting and disease spread have decreased in parts of their range, bighorn sheep remain especially vulnerable to habitat loss. At one point, bighorn sheep were on the verge of extinction, but thankfully conservation efforts helped reduce some threats, leading to an ongoing recovery.
Even when conservation efforts focus on one species, they affect all other species in that ecosystem. Many Indigenous tribes value bighorn sheep as sources of food, clothing, and tools. They hold a great respect for these animals, as shown through their many paintings. So much so that one of the most common images seen in ancient petroglyphs are of bighorn sheep.
We’re all connected, so saving one species benefits us all.
Answer to the riddle:
The ram got in trouble with the female sheep because he called her an EW! So make sure to add that ‘e’ at the end of ewe when speaking to a female sheep!
BONUS: Enjoy some wholesome lamb content here.