Bighorn sheep fighting

Ram! Bam! No thank you ma’am!

The horns of bighorn sheep rams are impressive structures: they must be strong enough to win fights that can last multiple hours, protect their brain during collisions where one male is hurling himself at another male at a rate of 30 feet per second, and be light enough to maneuver throughout their daily lives. The configuration of the horn and the materials they are made of allow forceful, sustained impact without damaging the brain or breaking the horns. First, the curl of the horn helps to transfer the force from the collision that would otherwise go straight to the brain along the length of the curl. Additionally, the boney core that serves as the basis of the horns is made up of a honeycomb-like structure that can bend slightly, which helps to dissipate the energy from the collision. Knowing how bighorn sheep deal with this complex challenge is helpful for a variety of applications in the human world, such as building helmets that can safely resist collisions. We don’t recommend that you wear helmets and pretend to fight like bighorn sheep males; but if you do, please send us pictures.

Reference: Drake et al. 2016. Horn and horn core trabecular bone of bighorn sheep rams absorbs impact energy and reduces brain cavity accelerations during high impact ramming of the skull. Acta Biomaterialia 44:41-50.


Everybody poops—especially ungulates

Everybody poops, and if you’re walking through an area where ungulates have been, you realize that ungulates poop a lot. Mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose, and elk usually defecate around 12 times a day. Remarkably, one study found that mule deer could poop up to 23 times a day! The frequency, as well as the composition, of poop all depends on the individual animal, the food they are eating, the habitat they live in, and the time of year.

Although most consider poop to be a waste, it can actually teach us a lot about ungulates. For example, we can count the number of piles of poop in area to learn about animal density. We also can use the small bits of DNA found on each fecal pellet to determine the animal’s identification, their sex, and how related they are to other animals. Additionally, because plant particles remain after food has been digested, scientists can analyze poop to figure out what an animal is eating. Thankfully for scientists, if there are ungulates around, there will always be a wealth of information hidden in their poop!

Reference: Neff, D. J. 1968. The pellet-group count technique for big game trend, census, and distribution: a review. The Journal of Wildlife Management 32:597-614.


Ungulate mouths are what they eat

If you’ve not been licked by a white-tailed deer and a bison, you might not have a reference point to know that their tongues are all that different. But, thanks to your friends at the Monteith Shop, all of your questions about ungulate tongues can be quelled.

Different species of ungulates tend to eat different vegetation, and their mouths are shaped to do this efficiently. Deer, for example, are picky in what parts of the plant they eat, so they need a mouth that lets them select particular parts of the plant. In addition to having soft tongues, deer have wider mouths and long lips, which let them maneuver and strip small leaves from twigs. In contrast, bison eat grass and other tough vegetation, so their tongues are rougher, the openings of their mouths are proportionately smaller, and their lips are shorter and stiffer. This all helps to prevent the grass they’re eating from falling out. And yes, even the uniquely shaped head and mouth parts of the moose are a function of their diet. The combination of individual anatomical features, such as the roughness of an ungulate’s tongue with the shape of their mouth, help ungulates to be successful in their habitats.

Reference: Hoffman, R. R. 1989. Evolutionary steps of ecophysiological adaptation and diversification of ruminants: a comparative view of their digestive system. Oecologia 78:443-457.


Expert babysitters

Raising kids is a hard job, but bighorn sheep and pronghorn have a creative way of sharing the load. While most of the herd is off eating, one or a few females will watch over “nursery groups” that can have as many as 20 youngsters. Because lambs and fawns are an easy meal for predators, the babysitting female has the unenviable job of keeping an eye on all those rambunctious, clumsy, but tasty kids. Sharing the babysitting load is just one example of how group living can be beneficial for many species of ungulates.


Where do ungulates go when they die?

Ungulates are made up of multiple nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and sodium. When an ungulate dies, their carcass decomposes and releases nutrients into the environment. These nutrients are critical to the growth and development of plants and other organisms and, because they often are naturally uncommon, the input of nutrients from decomposing carcasses can be important to the plants and soils in the near vicinity. In fact, the decomposing carcass changes the temperature, water content, and nutrient concentration of the soil surrounding the carcass, and provides a short wave of resources for the nearby plants. For example, the nutrients that entered the ground surrounding decomposing moose carcasses boosted plant growth up to 3 growing seasons after the moose died! The effects that a decomposing carcass has on their surrounding environment goes to show that each element of an ecosystem is connected in some way, even if we might not see the connection at first.

Bump, J. K., R. O. Peterson, and J. A. Vucetich. 2009. Wolves modulate soil nutrient heterogeneity and foliar nitrogen by configuring the distribution of ungulate carcasses. Ecology 90:3159-3167.

Parmenter, R. and J. Macmahon. 2009. Carrion decomposition and nutrient cycling in a semiarid shrub-steppe ecosystem. Ecological Monographs 79:637-661.