The wild ram embodies the mystery and magic of the mountains…
In honor of today’s contest between formidable members of the animal kingdom, I offer this short meander into the world of rams. Methinks the choice of a ram as a team mascot is a wise one – they are sure-footed, brawny, and capable of withstanding hard hits. They also have cool horns that fit nicely on a helmet. Sources claim that going into the 2021 season, the LA Rams were fielding the youngest roster in the NFL. But that had me thinking…how do you age a ram?
On our Yellowstone trip last month, we were lucky to see a few nice specimens of mature Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep rams (males). I had heard that you can approximate the age of a ram by counting annular rings on its horns, so that had me searching the internet when I got home to see what I could find. Indeed, there is a lot of information out there, but it seems to me that aging rams by their horns is somewhat of an art form. I present below what I have gleaned from a variety of web resources.
Unlike the antlers of members of the deer family, the horns of bighorn sheep continue to grow throughout their lives (they are not shed). Similar to tree rings, the growth varies during the year according to conditions like favorable nutrition. Winter is the time of stress for Yellowstone bighorns (mating season is early winter and food resources are more limited in winter), so growth slows considerably, resulting in an annular ring. Growth is typically fastest during the second year, resulting in a wide spacing between the first and second rings. It slows with age, so rings tend to be closer together toward the base in older rams. Rams reach sexual maturity at about 4 years, and one reference said that in most rams, the 4th year ring will be the most distinct (darkest, deepest). The first year of growth is often obscured in older rams as they have what are called broomed horns (broken tips) from battering against other rams during the mating season (bighorn sheep rams dual with each other for mating dominance by ramming their heads together to see who is the strongest). So, looking at the ram below, it looks like part of the first year has been obliterated (broomed) and then moving from the tip up, you see a fairly dark ring after a lot of growth. I think that is the second year ring. Then it gets a little harder, but, if you go with the darkest ring being the 4th year, you can see a dark ring before you get to the top of the curl.I see two other dark rings after that, with perhaps a new ring forming near the base. So, I’m guessing this is a 7-year old.
I cropped this picture and turned it into black and white to see if that helps highlight the rings any better. I labeled what I think are the annular rings. Just to make things more confusing they do have what are called false rings. You are supposed to look for rings that go all the way around the horn (something difficult to do without the horn in hand). This is how wildlife biologists estimate age (although the best method is to extract a tooth and count the rings).
Below are two more Yellowstone rams. What is your guess as to age? My estimates are at the bottom of the post. Start with which do you think is older, Ram A or B?
On Ram A, you can see a noticeably dark ring. If that is the 4th year, then I estimate Ram A to be at least 7, and maybe as much as 10, though the lighting and distance of the photo make it particularly hard to tell. Ram B seems to have more distinct rings. The 4th year looks like the ring near the top of the curl. The 5th year ring is next and also quite distinct. But I think the next two dark lines are false rings. Compare the rings in the horn on the left of the image with those on the right. You can see a couple of those dark rings do not go all the way around the top of the horn (look for grooves). I am guessing this ram is about 6 (almost 7). If I’m right, then Ram A is older than Ram B. See labeled diagrams below for my estimates.
But, as I said, these are my best guesses, If you want to test your skills more, see these references:
It certainly is an art form, and most people say you can get it to within a year of the ram’s actual age using this method. Now, I’m not sure about ageing Bengal Tigers…maybe the number of stripes divided by the age of the quarterback?
Enjoy the game!
Great article, thanks! On our trip to RMNP, I have a pic of Dante stalking a ram (from a distance) who can be seen (when zoomed) glaring back. My estimates were similar to yours.
Thanks, Rich. Sorry to hear about Dante.