Rapid decrease in horn size of bighorn sheep: environmental decline, inbreeding depression, or evolutionary response to trophy hunting?

J Hered. 2011 Nov-Dec;102(6):770-81. doi: 10.1093/jhered/esr082. Epub 2011 Sep 7.


There are numerous examples demonstrating that selection has greatly influenced phenotypes in wild-harvested species. Here, a significant reduction in horn size in trophy desert bighorn sheep rams over 30 years in a reintroduced population in Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona is documented. After examining the potential effects of a detrimental change in the environment, inbreeding depression, and hunter-caused evolutionary change, it appears that environmental deterioration, apparently from the effects of drought, may be a major cause of the decline in horn size. In particular, the reduction in ram horn size is positively associated with reduced winter lifetime rainfall over the 3 decades. Over the same period, the demographic indicator lamb-to-ewe ratio has also declined in the Aravaipa population. On the other hand, lamb-to-ewe ratio has not declined statewide in Arizona, and the population size in Aravaipa appears to be increasing, suggesting local- and trait-specific effects. Using a theoretical context, neither inbreeding depression nor hunter selection by themselves appear to the sole causes of the lower horn size. However, some combination of environmental factors, inbreeding depression, and hunter selection may have caused the decrease in observed horn size. It is not clear what management actions might be successful in countering the environmental effects on horn size, but supplemental feeding and cattle removal are suggested while translocation is suggested to counter the effects of inbreeding depression and reduced hunting and translocation are suggested to counter the effects of hunter selection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arizona
  • Biological Evolution
  • Droughts*
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Genetics, Population / methods*
  • Genetics, Population / statistics & numerical data
  • Horns / anatomy & histology*
  • Inbreeding
  • Male
  • Organ Size
  • Phenotype
  • Population Density
  • Seasons
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Sheep
  • Sheep, Bighorn / genetics*