Desert Bighorn

June 29th, 2015 9 Comments

Desert bighorn


Driving back from Arizona on the I-40, across the Mojave desert in the middle of a heatwave (109-degrees by my truck thermometer), I was stunned to see my first ever desert bighorn close to the highway. Sadly, I didn’t have my camera with me, but he looked very much like the one pictured above, and he was standing in pretty much the same position, still as a stone carving, watching cars go by.

The desert bighorn (Ovis Canadensis nelsoni) is a marvel of adaptive evolution, capable of living in areas where a lizard would be hard-pressed to survive, and making do with unbelievably small amounts of water, or with no water at all for long periods of time. From what I have read, their bodies are able to adapt to the great temperature extremes of the desert (it can be almost as cold in the winter as it is hot in the summer) by actually fluctuating several degrees. Certainly, it is their ability to live in areas where predators cannot that has helped them endure, even if only in small numbers.

There were several things that struck me as odd about my sighting.

First, obviously, was the fact that he was car-watching so close to the highway.

Second, while I’m not going to get too specific about where I saw him, it was an area where, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, desert bighorn are even more few and far between than they are in other parts of the desert, and there aren’t many of them anywhere, the low numbers being spread out over vast expanses of territory.



Third, given that water in the Mojave desert is scarcer than an honest politician in Washington, and given that the state is in the throes of the worst drought in modern times, what on earth was he doing in a part of the desert noted for having even less water than the rest of that barren moonscape? Many years ago I was on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, an area either about five-hundred miles long, or one-thousand miles long (depending on who is doing the defining) where there is virtually no water whatsoever, so picture my confusion one morning when I stumbled across the tracks of a large antelope. I did some inquiring and was told by several knowledgeable people that there is a subspecies of the gemsbok (above) that is able to survive by inhaling moisture from the coastal fog that—occasionally—blows in off the ocean at night. That may sound incredible to you, but consider this: when I left my host’s home in Arizona, over two-thousand feet higher in elevation, the humidity was exactly zero, and his part of Arizona is a tropical rain forest compared to that part of the Mojave. What water? What moisture? How?

And finally, one of the ways desert bighorn survive the intense heat is to bed down in the shade (think caves and rock overhangs) by day, so what was he doing standing on a barren rock pile at high noon in a heatwave? The local village idiot? Suffering from delusions caused by the intense heat? Trying to hitch a ride?

If anybody has any knowledge, please share it.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Where there cactus around? Maybe he got water from that. Maybe, he was showing how macho he is.

    “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day soon. “

  2. Anonymous says:

    He was looking for a female. Of course that is a guess but why else come out in the heat.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I had the opportunity to see one years ago near Lake Mead when I lived in Las Vegas. Last month I got to witness my thrill of a lifetime when driving across I-40 from Sedona, Az to the Antelope Valley. I was driving through Williams with two cameras sitting next to me on the passenger seat when I saw a beautiful bald eagle flying alongside the highway. I did not however get a picture of it, I am sure the driver of the big rig appreciated the fact that I did not cut him off to get the shot.

    • Anonymous says:

      You do not want to cut off a big rig. The result would not be pleasent for you.

      • Anonymous says:

        Definitely not….the love of my life is a truck driver and I am always on pins and needles when he is on the road.

  4. Anonymous says:

    My thought that he is guarding his females. If he is the Alpha male he has to keep watch just in case some other males try to mate with them. That is just a guess though.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    I’ve found a source where it’s said that bighorn sheep go looking for food at dusk and at noon. They’re called “dayanimals” (
    But from my experience with the ovis species I must say they just don’t have a reverse gear… Many years ago a friend of mine found a little sheep nearby his fishponds. It was almost drowned and the umbilical cord was still thereon. Should have been some sort of easter gag. Disgusting. She (!) was a little German grey heath and I called her “Heidi”. Well, it’s not an easy thing to get a hold on the right milk powder at easter! And hence it was still cold outside and my garden isn’t fully fenced I took her with me into the house. I called my mother in law: “Hello, this is Nicole. I’ve got a little sheep here.” “Oh, how cute! Where have you got it right now?” “In the living room.” “WHAAAAAT????”
    During the night I woke up by a repeating sound like tok tok tok. ????????
    Heidi had gotten under the sofa at the wall and was knocking with her little buttons (her little horns to come) against the wooden frame instead of simply walking backwards to get out again….
    Another time one of those big wool sheep, sort of merino or so, got entangled in/with (?) the eletric pasture fence and bleated (I hope that’s correct) out loud with each and every electric shock. It was already hoarse when I had arrived there. It took me so much effort to move this rather strong and reluctant animal backwards to pull it’s head out because it just refused to go back. My clothes were soaking wet when I had finally managed to release that stubborn thing.
    Let me point this out: Sheep are NOT stupid. They just don’t have a reverse gear available!
    So I reckon the lonely ram you’ve seen was just following his 10 miles circle back to his cave. Just turning around and walking back is impossible…. 😉

    Best wishes

  6. Anonymous says:

    Il fait le plein de vitamine D !!! Il en a besoin pour fixer le calcium dans ses os. C’est un animal très prévoyant 😉

  7. Anonymous says:

    JUST the kinda thing I like to investigate! You shoulda parked yer vehicle, J P, and backtracked that critter to try and find out! I do stuff like that–for some reason, most folks find that strange. Or don’t believe me. I had a boss once that seemed unconvinced I was late for work once chasing a wolf around I saw cross a highway in front of me–it WAS a wolf, though undoubtedly someone’s loose or escaped pet, as gray wolves haven’t been wild in N. C. for a century or so–and NO, it wasn’t a coyote or a “Red Wolf” either!(and it acted fairly tame, too–wouldn’t quite let me touch him, though….) Could be an endless number of reasons that desert Bighorn was out and about–perhaps he WAS looking for water! If the desert subspecies is on the same breeding schedule as other subspecies of Bighorn, it shouldn’t have been looking for a female, as rutting season for them is in the Fall. Should have been with a bachelor group–perhaps that’s who he was looking for? Perhaps some predator had shifted him out of his daybed, a coyote or cougar. Maybe he wanted to cross the road and was waiting for traffic to go by–or perhaps he WAS curious about those wheeled critters–were THEY headed for a watering hole? Regardless, what a splendid encounter! I have a book about Bighorn recovery programs titled “The Return Of Royalty”–a most fitting title for these noble beasts!….L.B.

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