Driving back from Arizona on the I-40, across the Mojave desert in the middle of a heatwave (109-degrees by my truck thermometer), I was stunned to see my first ever desert bighorn close to the highway. Sadly, I didn’t have my camera with me, but he looked very much like the one pictured above, and he was standing in pretty much the same position, still as a stone carving, watching cars go by.
The desert bighorn (Ovis Canadensis nelsoni) is a marvel of adaptive evolution, capable of living in areas where a lizard would be hard-pressed to survive, and making do with unbelievably small amounts of water, or with no water at all for long periods of time. From what I have read, their bodies are able to adapt to the great temperature extremes of the desert (it can be almost as cold in the winter as it is hot in the summer) by actually fluctuating several degrees. Certainly, it is their ability to live in areas where predators cannot that has helped them endure, even if only in small numbers.
There were several things that struck me as odd about my sighting.
First, obviously, was the fact that he was car-watching so close to the highway.
Second, while I’m not going to get too specific about where I saw him, it was an area where, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, desert bighorn are even more few and far between than they are in other parts of the desert, and there aren’t many of them anywhere, the low numbers being spread out over vast expanses of territory.
Third, given that water in the Mojave desert is scarcer than an honest politician in Washington, and given that the state is in the throes of the worst drought in modern times, what on earth was he doing in a part of the desert noted for having even less water than the rest of that barren moonscape? Many years ago I was on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, an area either about five-hundred miles long, or one-thousand miles long (depending on who is doing the defining) where there is virtually no water whatsoever, so picture my confusion one morning when I stumbled across the tracks of a large antelope. I did some inquiring and was told by several knowledgeable people that there is a subspecies of the gemsbok (above) that is able to survive by inhaling moisture from the coastal fog that—occasionally—blows in off the ocean at night. That may sound incredible to you, but consider this: when I left my host’s home in Arizona, over two-thousand feet higher in elevation, the humidity was exactly zero, and his part of Arizona is a tropical rain forest compared to that part of the Mojave. What water? What moisture? How?
And finally, one of the ways desert bighorn survive the intense heat is to bed down in the shade (think caves and rock overhangs) by day, so what was he doing standing on a barren rock pile at high noon in a heatwave? The local village idiot? Suffering from delusions caused by the intense heat? Trying to hitch a ride?
If anybody has any knowledge, please share it.