Out of Bounds

The Name’s the Game

Most folks know American antelope aren’t antelope at all, but pronghorn, the last of a family of ungulates existing only in North America. Their closest relative is the giraffe, of all things. 

By Rob Breeding

Many years ago, I traveled across Wyoming with a former colleague and a group of students en route to a conference. As per normal when crossing Wyoming, we saw plenty of antelope. 

Antelope numbers in Wyoming rival the human population. There are maybe 400,000 of the speedy ungulates in the Equality State versus about 576,000 people.

Like a lot of male humans, I’m genetically predisposed toward the occasionally annoying habit of calling out all wildlife I see while road tripping. I’ve known a female human or two who share this trait, but they are a rare breed.

For whatever reason, on this trip I referred to the thousands of antelope we drove past as “goats.” That’s a fairly rare moniker for antelope, except among antelope hunters. Hunters use it frequently, often in constructions such as, “I thought I was going to get a shot on those damn goats, but then they spotted me, despite the $500 I just spent on camo.”

I called them goats that entire trip, which might have been the end of the story, except I later realized my colleague, newly relocated to the West and antelope country, mistook my colloquial hunter’s shorthand for the actual name of the animal. 

I quickly made that right, apologizing for the confusion and offering a brief summary of the antelope’s unusual evolutionary lineage.

Most folks know American antelope aren’t antelope at all, but pronghorn, the last of a family of ungulates existing only in North America. Their closest relative is the giraffe, of all things. 

True antelope are native to Africa, Europe and Asia. African Kudu are a good example. So are gazelle. The saiga antelope of the Eurasian steppe is another. 

Saigas look much like American antelope, other than the bulbous nostrils grafted onto their long snouts. Fans of the 1984 version of the film “Dune” see a lot of the space-folding, guild navigators in the schnoz of saiga.

Humans like tagging new beasts with old names. American pronghorn resemble many old world antelope, and occupy the same ecological niche, so when explorers first encountered them, they went with what they knew.

Some folk use antelope, pronghorn, and even goat, interchangeably. Others go by what they were taught (usually antelope). An uptight minority rigidly adheres to the biologically correct name.

I’ll admit that for a time, I was a pronghorn guy. I studied pronghorn in Arizona for my master’s thesis, and since I frequently rubbed shoulders with biologists during my studies, I either called them pronghorn or spent a lot of wasted time being corrected.

I’m more agnostic when it comes to names these days. I use buffalo and bison interchangeably as well, but usually go with buffalo as that’s what I was taught. Besides, the song isn’t “Bison Soldier,” and Bob Marley is pretty much the word of God in my book.

I had to learn the difference between horns and antlers after I moved to Montana, however. During my youth in California I used them like synonyms, with no real idea I was often getting it wrong. Then I referred to a deer “horns” in an early story I wrote for the daily newspaper in Hamilton, shortly after I arrived in the Bitterroot. I was subjected to so much scorn and ridicule, primarily in the form of playful teasing, that I never made that mistake again.

For some time after, I was in the practice of correcting others when they got it wrong. Being a know-it-all doesn’t get you far in life, except on Jeopardy, so I quickly overcame that bad habit.

Now I go with the flow, unless I catch a nice brook trout and some buttinsky perceives piscatorial ignorance and corrects me, saying, “No, that’s a char.”

If you’re that guy, you better hope I don’t have my filet knife handy.

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