You know what a bison looks like, and you’re probably not too surprised to spot a deer or an elk, but what is the wild-looking, tan creature with the big eyes?
This speedy creature with the big dark eyes, fluffy behind, and horns is an antelope. But not really. Meet “Antilocapra americana,” the pronghorn. You won’t find this animal strolling along the dunes on the Georgia coasts or grazing in Yosemite Valley; it’s native to the High Plains of North America. Native, as in, around for a million years or so. They have been found from Southern Saskatchewan to Northern Mexico. Pronghorns are the only surviving member of the North American ungulate family Antilocapridae. They are entirely unique animals as the only living members of their family in the world.
Which brings us back to that word, “antelope.” Pronghorns do look similar to the antelope you would find in Africa, such as impalas or gazelles, but they are unrelated. However, early explorers in North America didn’t know that, so they named them after what was familiar to them. Hence, pronghorns were initially known as antelope, just as the American bison were called buffalo. All science aside, both animals are commonly called antelope and buffalo.
Like many big game species, pronghorns were extensively hunted and by 1915, there were only about 12,000 left. Due to conservation efforts of the past century, their numbers now stand around one million. Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park are both great places to see these beautiful, unique animals.
Pronghorns are the fastest land animal in North America, capable of speeds up to 60 miles per hour and can sustain a speed of 30 miles per hour for several miles. So if one steals your backpack, it’s gone. (Not really; they’ll turn them in at the wildlife station.)
If they weren’t unique enough already, we’re not done yet. You’ll see they have horns. Or antlers? Maybe “hantlers.” Both male and female pronghorns have horns/antlers; they’re really a combination between the two because they shed them in the winter like deer or elk shed antlers. Though unlike antlers, the pronghorn’s horn sheath is made of keratin that grows on a bony core—like a goat or cow—however, true horns are never shed. Thus, hantlers.
With both sexes having hantlers, it can be tricky to tell them apart; however, the males’ hantlers are longer and have that distinctive prong or fork. Hence the name, pronghorn. Males also have a black patch on their jaws.
Lastly, pronghorns’ eyes are special, too. Having evolved on the plains, they needed to be able to spot predators at a distance. You’ll notice that they have huge eyes (and such pretty eyelashes!) which are located far back on the head, allowing them to see movement to their sides as well see their surroundings while grazing. They can spot movement up to three miles away, so sneaking up on them is tricky. They’re also herd animals, so there are always look-outs to give advance warning.
When visiting the parks in the spring and summer, keep an eye out for the babies. Pronghorns often have twins, and they’re just ridiculously cute and fast. They can walk within the day and keep up with the herd in a few days. Truly, they are born to run.
As with all wildlife, keep a respectful distance and never intentionally get between a young animal and its mother. Also, if you come across a baby animal, please leave it there and don’t touch it. Wildlife do not appreciate human scents on their young.