A couple weeks ago, the topic of Natural North Dakota was antlers and horns. I mentioned that the pronghorn was the only member of the antelope family that is native to North America. We may call pronghorn antelope, but that is not quite right.
There are no true antelope in North America, or the rest of the Americas for that matter. Pronghorn are rather unusual in that they are the only living member of their own family, the Antilocapridae. In other words the pronghorn has its own family, genus, and of course species, but it is not classified as an antelope. So calling a pronghorn an antelope is a misnomer.
Pronghorn are put in their own family largely because, unlike true antelope, the pronghorn’s horns are branched and the sheath is shed each year. True antelope, for example African gazelles, belong to the Bovid family, which includes cattle, bison, goats, and sheep.
The pronghorn was new to science when the Lewis and Clark expedition collected and described the first specimen, shot by Clark, in what is now South Dakota. Clark wrote about it in his journal: “I killed a Buck Goat of this Countrey, about the height of the Grown Deer, its body Shorter the horns which is not very hard and forks 2/3 up one prong Short the other round and Sharp arched…” So perhaps the term pronghorn originated with Clark’s description of this uniquely American species.
Historically pronghorn may have been as abundant as bison on the plains of North America. Some estimates put their population before European settlement at around 30-40 million. However, like the bison, their populations plummeted with settlement. By 1900 there were only a couple hundred pronghorn left in North Dakota. Thanks to management by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department their populations rebounded to become huntable populations. However, due to some tough winters, the pronghorn season was suspended the past two years.
So the next time you are out there where the deer and the antelope…we really should say pronghorn play, give some consideration to this interesting and unique native North Dakotan.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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