The pronghorn, sometimes called the pronghorn antelope, is neither an antelope nor a deer, but a unique ungulate that lives only in North America.
In the animal biz, people are obsessed with the gold medalers in any category: Who’s the biggest? Who’s the smallest? Who’s got the longest penis? Well, sometimes it’s more illustrative to know who the second-place runner-up is. And the pronghorn is the second-fastest animal alive, capable of reaching the awesome speed of 61 mph, and unlike the cheetah, sustaining it for longer than a sprint.
Now, the fastest land predator in North America is the coyote (41 mph), followed by the gray wolf (40 mph.) So next to a pronghorn, they’re going to get left in the dust. And keep in mind, evolution is conservative; it’s not going to give you skills that are unnecessary for your survival. So riddle me this: If the only animal alive that can catch a pronghorn lives in Africa, why did the pronghorn evolve to be so fast?
Answer: To outrun the native North American cheetah, of course.
In the Pleistocene, North America looked a lot more like modern Africa:
Note the lions, hyenas, wild horses, elephants (mastodons), rhinos and hippos. In fact, the only clue that this is America is that unfortunate elk. Additionally, there were giant ground sloths and native North American camels. Pronghorns, now alone in their taxonomic group, once belonged to a family of 22 different ungulates. Now they’re what you call a “living fossil,” a survivor of a distant time that’s outrun all of its competition, and is still outrunning the ghost of a cheetah that went extinct 10,000 years ago.
There are two main points I want to make:
1.) If you didn’t know it, welcome to the Holocene Extinction Event. If you think the mass extinction of species began with the industrial revolution, think again. We’ve been doing this for tens of thousands of years. Humanity is an asteroid. The fact that the American lion, cheetah, mammoth, etc., died out 10,000 years ago, which is exactly when the Clovis civilization came over from Siberia, is more than coincidence. We literally hunted every big mammal we could into extinction. Oh, there are respectable scientists who believe the mass extinction had to do with climate change, or some sort of “hyperdisease.” To them, I point out that the exact same fucking thing happened in Australia 47,000 years ago. (Remember the last post? All those cool giant kangaroos and such? All of them were native Australian megafauna that went extinct after humans showed up.) And how do you explain that the last mammoths went extinct only in 1,700 B.C. — the Greeks were building temples, people — on a Siberian island never habitated by us?
Once, there were many forms of human. We were the ones that succeeded, mainly because, unlike the Neanderthal and others, we didn’t ever stop killing. But we can evolve; the invasive Clovis civilization eventually collapsed, giving rise to the Native American, who are/were, for all their shortcomings, much more in harmony with nature. (Or, at least, the “new” nature.) If Homo sapiens the species could “go native” and stop extincting other species, we might just find that transcendent “Age of Aquarius” we’re looking for, and get out of the Holocene for good.
2.) Here’s where the Mad Scientist in me comes out: What if we could bring back the cheetah? I am obsessed with the idea of “rewilding” America. I want to see a return of the buffalo and the wolf, and if possible, a return of some of the megafauna we killed off a mere 10,000 years ago. Don’t laugh; it’s happened before. The Spanish re-introduced the horse to the American West, and it’s doing very well for itself… mainly because the horse evolved here. Of course, it has no natural predators anymore, and nobody wants to shoot a horse, so it’s overgrazing and becoming a huge problem. Why not bring back the American lion? We could either substitute an African lion, or rebreed the original American lion from DNA, “Jurassic Park” style. I envision an American West in which private prairies are grazed by bison and Przewalski’s horses, and osage oranges are pushed down by browsing mastodon. Camels roam the deserts of Arizona, where they’re preyed on by the Mexican wolf. And on the plains of Wyoming, a cheetah erupts from the grass, and the pronghorn, so tired from outrunning everything all these millenia, is finally caught.
Tomorrow: An endangered species of one.