What if I told you that dinosaurs once roamed where you sit right now? It sounds simple in logic, but think deeper. Right where you are, that’s where they were. Then consider there were species roaming the earth with the dinosaurs that are still here today. And one of those species happens to be an animal that modern U.S. hunters pursue to this day. Of course, this animal is the pronghorn.
BBC.com recently referred to pronghorn — Antilocapra americana — as an animal kingdom marvel. The publication’s article delves into this question: were pronghorn alive during the Pleistocene Age more than 2½ million years ago? Looking for answers, the reporter traveled to the Los Angeles Zoo to speak with Josh Sisk, a curator who specializes in hoofed species, which includes pronghorn.
“They’re the last remaining species from the Ice Age,” Sisk told the reporter, while they watched dozens of pronghorn feed on grain.
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The Evolution of the Pronghorn
The continued survival of the pronghorn can arguably be directed to its speed. It is the fastest land mammal in the United States and second fastest in the world. Its top speed reaches nearly 60 mph. While its original foe was the cheetah, wolves and coyotes are now its primary predators.
Speed, in the pronghorn’s long-term survival, has been complemented with adaption, Sisk told BBC. One evolutionary trait is the pronghorn’s hair. It comes out as a defense against predators. As Sisk explains, that’s not the only way pronghorn have evolved. Other ways are:
- Their hair is hollow, which is perfect for the extreme heat and cold
- They also have padded hooves, which keep them light and balanced in rocky terrain
- They can also go days without water
- They have the largest tracheas of their body size among ungulates, which allows them to breathe enough air to maintain top speed
- They have the same eye size as African elephants, which provides added defense against carnivores
“They’ve got to have that evolutionary adaptation from the Pleistocene Age and the Ice Age,” Sisk told the BBC.
Are Pronghorn a Pre-Historic Survivor?
It’s hard to consider pronghorn as pre-historic animals. Sabre-tooth tigers, mammoths, sure — but not an animal that many of us have hunted in our lifetime. And yet, there’s fossilized proof that pronghorn have been around for millions of years.
The BBC report takes readers to The La Brea Tar Pits in L.A. It’s, as described in the story, “a living museum surrounded by a city of 13 million people.” It features the richest collection of Pleistocene fossils in the world, having produced between 3 and 5 million fossils from more than 600 species of animals and plants since the 1800s. Even today researchers are uncovering fossils preserved in the stick-black tar on the museum’s 23 acres.
Two types of fossilized pronghorn have been found in the tar — a dwarf-sized pronghorn and a full sized. The dwarf, BBC reports, stood about 2 feet and weighed about 20 pounds. It, however, is extinct.
So why is the dwarf pronghorn extinct while today’s full-sized pronghorn is not? BBC reports the museum’s new assistant curator Emily Lindsey of the University of Cal-Berkley admits it’s hard to tell due to conflicting studies on climate change. In a 2016 paper co-authored by Lindsey, it’s argued the dwarf pronghorn died off in part to human impact, but also because smaller species often need faster reproductive times to survive, BBC reports.
Can you believe pronghorn have been around for millions of years? Comment below to let us know what you think of these fascinating studies.