Bighorn Sheep – Crashing Heads

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With all the talk in professional sports these days about concussions from repeated hits to the head, it may be puzzling to watch bighorn sheep rams battling for the right to breed a receptive ewe. Through most of the year, rams get along pretty well, but during October and November, it is every ram for himself, and the way to get ahead is to bash other heads with your head.

Bighorn horns grow throughout the ram’s life and the result is a 15 kilogram mass on a mature, seven or eight year old) ram.

Both horn size and necessarily strong neck muscles help rams survive the vigor of breeding season. The rams’ horns are used mainly for eliminating rivals. Horns establish the rank of the ram and the right to breed most of the ewes in the neighbourhood, since the biggest guy gets almost all the “action.”

Two unequally matched rams interested in the same ewe will seldom fight, as the junior animal will most often back down when faced with superior weaponry. However, two nearly equally matched rams will battle for the right to breed by crashing their heads together in vigorous combat until one concedes defeat.

As the two combatants square off and charge towards each other, they may rear up on their hind legs just before contact to increase the force of the crash. The combined impact is equal to 900 kilograms or more.

To do this and avoid serious concussion, a ram’s head has a number of modifications. Powerful neck muscles help, the result of packing those massive horns around every day. The horns themselves have an outer sheath made of keratin, a tough but somewhat pliable protein similar to fingernails, over a heavy, boney core. The keratin allows the horns to give a little and spread the force of the crash over the mass of the horns.

Inside the ram’s head, the horn core is connected to his skull, which features a double system of bone plates on either side of an enlarged sinus cavity. The flexible connections between the bone plates allow the outer skull layer to bend in without breaking and the honeycombed hollow between the plates absorbs the force of the crash that would have otherwise have rattled his brain.

The rams in these fights are not above cheating either, such as a sneak attack from the side, two ganging up on another or kicks to the opponent’s crotch. As the poet Lyly said, “All is fair in love and war,” and for bighorn rams, this is both. Eventually there is a winner who claims the ewe, breeds and continues the species.

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