Macho rams 'take a walk on the wild side'

  • Bighorn ram

    Dale F. Reed

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

In the social system of wild sheep, the ram with the largest horns rules. Not only does he breed most of the ewes, but he is followed around by an admiring throng of lesser males. It is not surprising, then, that bighorn rams are as obsessed with their rank and status as presidential candidates and spend much of their time comparing horn sizes and doing battle with their peers.

Rams love a good brawl, and will come from all directions to join a fight in progress. Just before the breeding season, mountain walls ring with the clash of their built-in weapons, which can weigh as much as 30 pounds and are wielded in vicious karate swings. No wonder the animal has become a sort of totem for human males.

As it happens, this symbol of virility spends most of his adult life fawning on larger males.

Sometime after its second year, a young male bighorn leaves the nursery band of females and lambs he grew up with and begins following the largest-horned ram he can find. Thus he discovers the seasonal ranges that enabled the older animal to grow so large.

But the big male has nothing to gain from being shadowed by adoring adolescent sheep. The only way teenage rams can ingratiate themselves with their potentially dangerous elders is to act like females. Mountain sheep expert Valerius Geist writes, "The male groups are homosexual societies in which the dominant acts the role of the courting male and the subordinate the role of the estrous female."

Only when the young rams grow big enough horns to challenge their idols does this behavior cease. The instigator of a battle often insults his rival with the tongue-flicks and grunts that are the ovine equivalent of wolf whistles, and the loser may suffer the indignity of being mounted like a ewe.

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