Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) have unique adaptations to help them thrive in the Mojave desert. Complex digestive systems allow them to eat tough desert plants such as mesquite, catclaw, and even barrel cactus. Cloven hooves allow them to traverse the rocky mountain ranges throughout Utah, California, Nevada and Arizona.
Their impressive horns are made of keratin, just like your fingernails! Male bighorn sheep, known as rams, have distinctive horns that drastically curl as they age. Female bighorn sheep, known as ewes, have smaller and lighter horns that curl only slightly as they age. The horns continue to grow throughout their lives, developing rings like the growth of a tree. Older rams have been spotted using rocks to break off or file down their horn to keep an unobstructed view. Rams use their impressive horns to battle over territory and females. Both rams and ewes use their horns to break open the nutrient dense barrel cactus.
They breed between August and November, and after a 6 month pregnancy, their offspring, known as lambs, are born in the spring. The lambs, born one at a time, have less than 50% chance of surviving their first summer. Mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, and golden eagles are a few of their natural predators.The Desert Bighorn Sheep population once estimated at 2 million in North America has dwindled to less than 70,000. They are extremely vulnerable to diseases introduced by grazing animals, as well as climate change, and habitat fragmentation. They are federally protected, and many repopulation efforts are being made across the West.