The unusual history of an antelope that isn't an antelope at all

October 4, 2016, 8 a.m.
Pronghorn herd
Photo: schrojo/Shutterstock

"Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play" is the opening line to the beloved song "Home on the Range." There's just one catch. North America doesn't have any antelope.

The pronghorn is commonly called the pronghorn antelope, but it is not actually related to antelope at all. It is the only surviving member of the Antilocapridae family and its closest relatives are the giraffes and okapi of Africa.

This species is unique to North America and evolved to outrun the now extinct dire wolves, American cheetahs and short-faced bears that roamed the continent until the ice age. Though those speedy predators are now gone, an adult pronghorn can easily race away from slow modern predators including coyotes and bobcats.

The pronghorn is the fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere, nearly matching the famously fast modern day cheetah for sprinting speed, hitting a top speed of almost 60 miles per hour. Indeed, the pronghorn is built both for speed and endurance and can easily outpace a cheetah in a distance race.

They can run like the wind, yet pronghorn cannot jump. Thus, a major impediment to their migration and movement for feeding is fencing set up by ranchers and farmers. Their population dropped significantly in the 1800s, but conservation efforts that include fence removal and pronghorn-friendly fencing have helped their population to rebound to an estimated 700,000 in the United States.

Now that you know that this exceptional species is not actually an antelope but something entirely unique and fascinating, perhaps next time you spot one you'll hum to yourself, "Home, home on the range, where the deer and the pronghorn do play...."