Bighorn Sheep

These four pages are devoted to one of the most legendary, elusive, and enigmatic quadrupeds of western North America, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. The theme and framework of the story rest on the science of taxonomy, a system for naming, ranking, and classifying living organisms, as formalized by the eighteenth-century Swedish physician Carl Linneus. The substance of it is the 100-year-long effort by scientists to decide where the bighorn belonged in the Linnaean system, and to get the animal pictured correctly.

First, we consider the history of European relatives of the North American species, from fossil and petroglyph to Medieval Christian icon. Spanish explorers and missionaries came upon the new species first in the sixteenth century and again in the eighteenth, but left us mainly their expressions of astonishment. In 1800 a Scottish explorer shot several specimens in the Canadian Rockies and brought back hides, heads and horns for study by American and British zoologists, including Dr. George Kearsley Shaw of the British Museum, whose study was published in 1804. Neither Lewis nor Clark could have read it before their expedition began.

Next we confront the paradox that Elliott Coues pointed out in 1893—that Lewis and Clark had mistaken goats with wool . . . for sheep, and sheep without wool . . . for ibexes. Succeeding naturalists heightened the misunderstanding with invidious comparisons.

Thirdly, Lewis and Clark reveal but do not admit their confusion between the bighorn sheep and the mountain goat. We read naturalist John Godman's interpretations of the captains' descriptions of the two species (as edited by Nicholas Biddle), and the engravings of both that Godman published in 1826.

Finally, we view two of the earliest still images of bighorns taken by the pioneer wildlife photographer Allen G. Wallihan in 1898. We then briefly summarize the turbid history of the bighorn's various official names, which, more than a century after Lewis and Clark puzzled over the question, boiled down to just one. We wind up with a sequence of video glimpses of six living specimens of Ovis canadensis Shaw.

Why were they and other early scientists so confused about this animal?

Listing of concepts covered in this series