by Ali MacaladyWith its distinctive markings, an American pronghorn on the prairie range is about as inconspicuous as pepper in salt. But then again, when you can sprint at 60 miles per hour and sustain speeds of around 45 mph for mile after mile, stealth and camouflage aren’t that important.
In Built for Speed, John Byers — a zoology professor at the University of Idaho and one of those rare scientists with a gift for writing — provides a glimpse into the life of North America’s fastest mammal.
The pronghorn’s long, thin hooves and powerhouse lungs and heart evolved over thousands of years on the Ice Age plains, where lions, tigers, long-legged bears, hyenas and wolves roamed the landscape. But unlike many other Ice Age animals, pronghorn survived the retreat of the glaciers without much change. Now, the pronghorn’s unique physiology and behavior provide a living window into a long-gone ecosystem. The animal is one of America’s truly ancient originals.
Built for Speed also lets us in on the life of a dedicated wildlife biologist. Returning to Montana’s National Bison Range year after year, Byers describes the tedious work of recording individual pronghorn gestures, his conflicted response to watching a coyote munch on a newborn fawn, and the thrill of racing alongside a pronghorn buck in a car.
Byers only touches on the more recent history of human-pronghorn interactions, a history in which the tens of millions of pronghorn roaming North America at the turn of the 19th century were reduced by hunting and fencing to less than 20,000 by 1900. But through his steady admiration of pronghorn and the land that created them, Byers also makes a potent claim for a more complete recovery of this Plains icon.
Built for Speed: A Year in the Life of Pronghorn
by John A. Byers
230 pages, hardcover $24.95.
Harvard University Press, 2003 © High Country News