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I have several favorite animals. Today, we’re going to look at one of them – desert bighorn sheep.
While in college I spent some time studying a herd of desert bighorn sheep in south central Arizona. Desert bighorns disappeared from this section of the state about 60 years earlier. No one is quite sure why. It may have been due to a disease that wiped out the sheep or perhaps from being over hunted. With the help of a local cattle rancher, the Arizona Game and Fish Department began establishing a new herd of wild desert bighorns in the early 1960’s.
Thirteen years after the first animals were introduced into the area, I was afforded the chance to study them in the field. The main purpose of my study was to discover how far the bighorns were traveling from the area they were first introduced into.
What made the field study so special was one very large bighorn ram. He had been introduced into the area 13 years earlier when he was a lamb. Since most wild desert bighorns live 8-10 years of age and this ram was now 13 years old, the Game and Fish Department gave him the name of Old Granddad. He was a very impressive ram with world record sized horns.
On one particular day, I climbed down a cliff to a long ledge part way down where I knew the bighorns would often sleep. The cliff dropped off about 100 feet below the ledge where I was standing. As I rounded a corner on this ledge, I found myself facing Old Granddad who stood only 30 feet in front of me. When he saw me, he started pawing the ground and shaking his head. This was his way of telling me that I didn’t belong there. I was too far from the ropes that I used to climb down with and knew that if the ram charged at me that I couldn’t reach the ropes in time. The ledge was 4 to 8 feet wide, so I had no where to go but down if he charged. As the ram’s actions seemed to be getting more aggressive, I decided to charge him instead. I started waving my arms and yelling as I took several quick steps towards him. Thankfully, my bluff worked and the ram turned and disappeared around a corner of the ledge. A couple minutes later I saw him near the bottom of the canyon.
Being able to climb down a 100 foot cliff in only a couple of minutes is one of the things that make bighorn sheep so special. Bighorns have specially designed hooves that allow them to climb up and down steep mountains and cliffs. Each hoof is split into two halves. The outer edge of the hoof is very hard and allows the bighorn’s feet to grab onto the slightest crack or rise in the steep rocky terrain. The inner part of the hoof is softer and kind of spongy. This rubbery cushion-like padding in the central part of the hoof helps them to keep from slipping on the hard rocks and gives them better balance and traction. One of the advantages of having these hooves that allows them to climb such steep terrain is that they can escape their predators more easily as their predators cannot always follow them in very steep areas.
Bighorn sheep also have excellent eyesight that helps them spot predators from long distances. I often found it very difficult to get real close to the bighorns that I studied. Sometimes it took me a couple of hours of crawling through the rocks, bushes and cactus to get close enough to observe and study them. This is why many researchers use high power spotting scopes to study the bighorns from further away. I often had to use one to observe the bighorns from one side of a canyon when they were on the other side.
When it is time to mate, the bighorn rams will fight each other for the right to breed with the ewes. The rams will clash into each other horn against horn. The horns can weigh up to 30 pounds. The impact is great enough to crush a person’s skull. However, the bighorn rams have a specially designed skull that acts like a shock absorber and protects their brains from severe damage. Their skull has a double layer of bone behind the horns. The double layers are honeycombed with a series of bone struts. The struts and space between the double layers absorb most of the impact of their collision with each other.
I have asked a number of evolutionists to explain how the special shock absorber feature of the bighorn skull evolved. How many bighorn bashed each other’s brains out before they evolved the extra protection? Did the double layered skull evolve because of the head butting or did the head butting behavior evolve because they had the double layered skull?
When I use to sit and watch these magnificent animals, I couldn’t help but see the hand of our Creator God. With their special climbing hooves, excellent eyesight and shock absorber skulls, bighorn sheep are another example of God’s infinite wisdom when He created many animals with unique characteristics.
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