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A pronghorn on a Montana range

Pronghorns and Royalty

Are Pronghorns Smarter Than Classical European Royalty?

Over the past two decades, John Byers has proven that female pronghorns are smarter than many humans when it comes to mate selection. Rather than going for the male with the biggest body or most impressive horns, female pronghorns expend a ton of energy searching for the most vigor and best stamina; traits that will give their offspring the greatest chance of success.

But are they smarter than classical European royalty? When pronghorns select a mate, can they factor in what many historians believe doomed the famous Hapsburg dynasty—inbreeding?

“We’ve shown the pronghorns know the benefit of selecting the best males,” says Byers, professor of biological sciences at the University of Idaho. “Now we’re trying to show whether females can balance the cost benefits of selecting a strong male versus a closely related one.”

Because Byers has worked with the same pronghorn herds in eastern Montana since the early 1990s, and can identify each pronghorn by sight, he is in a unique position to carry out this study. As a result of his research, Byers has a complete pedigree of the entire population. When a fawn is born, genetic testing removes any doubt which male is the father.

Then, when a drought in 2003 killed off most of the males and about 30 percent of the females, Byers knew he was in a unique place to study mate selection based on inbreeding.

“I realized we were going to be in an incredibly interesting position,” he says. “We now know females select males for their vigor with a real benefit in survival for their offspring. But today, about three years after the weather caused a bottleneck in the population, they’re faced with a different set of choices. I think they’ll be able to discern the best choice, but only time will tell.”

For more information on John Byers, pronghorns, and the importance of preserving the nation’s grasslands and bison ranges, visit Byers’ website. Or read his book, “Built for Speed: A Year in the Life of Pronghorn” (Harvard University Press, 2003), a “vivid and memorable tale of a first-rate scientist's twenty-year encounter with a magnificent animal, and a reminder of the crucial role we can play in preserving the fleeting life of the native American grassland.”