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Caracteristics and Habits of Bighorn Sheep - Texas Bighorn Society

Bighorn SheepThe Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) is a subspecies of Bighorn Sheep that occurs in the desert Southwest regions of the United States and in the northern regions of Mexico. The trinomial of this species commemorates the American naturalist Edward William Nelson. The characteristics and behavior of Desert Bighorn Sheep generally follow those of other Bighorn Sheep, except for adaptation to the lack of water in the desert: bighorn sheep can go for extended periods of time without drinking water.


Desert bighorn are stocky, heavy-bodied sheep, similar in size to mule deer. Weights of mature rams range from 125 to 200 pounds (55 to 90 kg), while ewes are somewhat smaller. Due to their unique padded hooves, bighorn are able to climb the steep, rocky terrain of the desert mountains with speed and agility. Bighorn rely on their keen eyesight to detect potential predators such as mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats, and they use their climbing ability to escape.[1]

Both sexes develop horns soon after birth, with horn growth continuing more or less throughout life. Older rams have impressive sets of curling horns measuring over three feet long with more than one foot of circumference at the base. The ewes' horns are much smaller and lighter and do not tend to curl. The head and horns of an adult ram may weigh more than 30 pounds. Annual growth rings indicate the animal's age. Both rams and ewes use their horns as tools to break open cactus, which they consume, and for fighting.[2]

The typical diet of a desert bighorn sheep is mainly grasses, sedges and forbs.

Desert adaptations

The desert bighorn has become well adapted to living in the desert heat and cold and, unlike most mammals, their body temperature can safely fluctuate several degrees. During the heat of the day, bighorn often rest in the shade of trees and caves.[3]

Southern desert bighorn sheep are typically found in small scattered bands adapted to a desert mountain environment with little or no permanent water. Some of the bighorn may go without visiting water for weeks or months, sustaining their body moisture from food and from rainwater collected in temporary rock pools. They may have the ability to lose up to 30 percent of their body weight and still survive. After drinking water, they quickly recover from their dehydrated condition. Wildlife ecologists are just beginning to study the importance of this adaptive strategy, which has allowed these small bands to survive in areas too dry for many of their predators.[4]

Social life

Rams battle to determine the dominant animal, which then gains possession of the ewes. Facing each other, rams charge head-on from distances of 20 feet (6.1 m) or more, crashing their massive horns together with tremendous impact, until one or the other ceases.[5]

Bighorns live in separate ram and ewe bands most of the year. They gather during the breeding season (usually July-October), but breeding may occur anytime in the desert due to suitable climatic conditions. Gestation lasts about 6 months, and the lambs are usually born in late winter.[6]


  1. ^ Caprinae Specialist Group (1996). Ovis canadensis ssp. nelsoni. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesIUCN 2006. www.iucnredlist.org. Retrieved on 11 May 2006.
  2. a b c d e f McCutchen, H.E. (1995). "Desert Bighorn Sheep". In Stohlgren, T.J. (PDF). The Interior West. In: Our Living Resources: A report to the nation on the distribution, abundance, and health of U.S. plants, animals, and ecosystems. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Geological Survey.
  3. a b c d e f "Desert Bighorn Sheep of Cabeza Prieta NWR"Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved 2007-08-14.
  4. ^ Seton, E.T. (1929). Lives of game animals. New York: Doubleday. Vol 3.
  5. ^ Buechner, H.K. (1960). The bighorn sheep in the United States: its past, present, and future. Wildlife Monograph 4.
  6. ^ Edward H. Saxton (March 1978). "Saving the Desert Bighorns"Desert Magazine 41 (3). Retrieved 2008-04-27.
  7. ^ van Wyk, Peter (2003). Burnham: King of ScoutsTrafford PublishingISBN 1-4120-0901-4.
  8. ^ "San Andres National Wildlife Refuge home page". United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved 2009-01-18.
  9. ^ "Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep". Bighorn Institute. Retrieved 2009-01-18.
  10. ^ Lee, Mike (March 23, 2008). "Bighorns facing smaller habitat - Federal agency wants to reduce protected area by more than 50%"San Diego Union Tribune.