The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, October 08, 2000

Burr Williams, Midland Reporter Telegram, October 8, 2000, © 2003

"Pronghorn (antelope) and ants have something in common."

"What in the blue blazes do ya mean there, hoss?"

"All these big ol' ants running around underneath us -- what are they carrying?"

"It looks like they are carrying seeds. And look there at that nest -- it is surrounded by fluffy chaff from the Arizona Cottontop."

"People call them Big Red Ants, but another name I have heard is Harvester Ant. Used to be that people thought they planted the seeds around their nest. It sorta looks that way, because there is often one species of grass around the nest that doesn't grow anywhere else nearby. It made the old fable about the grasshopper and ant even more of a parable, with the ant growing his own food."

"Look -- these ants are coming out, and they are carrying seeds. There that one goes, right to the edge of the cleared circle -- and by golly, he just spat it out like a home run hitter expectorating chaw!"

"They don't eat the seeds. They carve the embryonic tissue off, chew it up and spit into their babies' mouth's."

"That's downright nasty. Oh, heck, what am I saying. Birds feed babies bugs, and vultures regurgitate rotten meat, and herons puke half-digested fish into their babies' mouth's. I guess I am not so surprised. But what do the adults eat?"

"Baby vomit. They process the food into a liquid that adults like. Little bubbles of clear and sparkly baby vomit."

"Sort of like ants and aphids, huh? Except that it is aphid pee the ants drink isn't it? The honeydew; that is what it is called. But -- you're messing with my head, trying to make me forget you said antelopes and ants have something in common."

"You ever get close to an antelope?"

"As a matter of fact, I have. There is a small herd that utilizes my western pasture. A few years ago I developed a water hole out there. I drilled a well and set up one of those solar pumps that feeds a tank that trickles out into a trough one of my hands built out of a hunk of rock. I put up a guzzler, too. I spent a number of nights out there, camping out with the family. I put it out where that deep playa is, that one the geologist with the leaseholders said might be a sinkhole like the Kermit Crater. I would get up before daybreak and watch the light appear in the east."

"That is such a wonderful time of day. Everybody that works outside on the Llano has to become a morning person. And, a person should get up early -- in fact, the earlier the better -- nothing better in the hot summer than that wonderful dawn coolness. Sometimes you can smell the moisture in the air, and when it is just right that cool moist air just cradles a person. Man-o-man! Dawn air can be as soft as your loved one's skin!"

"I am sure you saw that letter to the editor recently -- that one where the feller in Arizona wrote in and fussed at you guys at the Nature Center for saying Pronghorn should be called antelope? I guess from a "folk name" standpoint, he was absolutely correct. Charbonneau did tell Lewis and Clark he knew them as antelope. People call them that, there is no doubt. But you would have thought, if he was enough of a reader to quote Lewis and Clark, he would have some books in his collection about critters. He could have looked up Pronghorn. And even in Paige the Internet is accessible."

"Yeah, taxonomy is a way of relating species to others. That was our point. Pronghorn are different from African antelope. Some books give pronghorns a separate family, and at the very least, a separate sub-family. There are several ways that pronghorns differ."

"Have you seen the drawings of the four-horned pronghorn in the Pleistocene? Now, that is a weird looking critter! When I was camping at the new waterhole I decided to plant some Afghan Pines in an enclosure. The morning before I planted them, I took a walk, waiting for it to get light enough to see where I had been soaking the ground all night. I'd walked maybe 400 yards in the moonlight when my big Chow froze. I could feel his every muscle tighten, even though he was six inches away from me. I looked in the direction he did, and three pronghorn just a few feet away. We had caught them sleeping."

"Didn't they bolt away?"

"Nope, that was a weird thing. They did not. When you are outdoors enough, sooner or later --"

"-- an animal is going to behave in an unexpected way. Yes sir!"

"The pronghorn peered at us from their comfortable prone positions. Pronghorns acting like satisfied cows! Dad-gum, it was different. I slowly sank to the ground, and sat down Indian-style. That dog is the smartest that has ever ridden with me. He hunkered down, too -- no growling -- just an intent look. I think the pronghorn were puzzled -- what was that wild fierce canid doing with a biped? That just didn't compute in their minds. They were staring at Segundo, just boring holes in him with their stare.'

"I have heard that predators and prey have a language of death. Supposedly they signal each other in very subtle ways about their present physical condition. I wonder if Segundo's actions told them not to worry?"

"I figured they would get up and go sprinting away -- they run 60 to 70 miles an hour in short bursts, so I knew Segundo couldn't catch them. But they just kept sitting there, and we kept sitting there. Probably five minutes passed, and it got a little lighter. Instead of only seeing their forms among the yuccas, I began to see detail on their faces. As it became even lighter, I could sense a growing nervousness. So could Segundo. His muscles tensed and he began to quiver. I couldn't take it anymore and I stood up, waving my arms, and hollering. Segundo jumped the very second I propelled myself up. I swear they went from a kneeling position to full-out petal-to-the-metal scratch-laying and tire-squealing. No way Segundo could catch them."

"It is amazing how few kids know what a pronghorn is... they see the head mount at Sibley and call it a deer or a reindeer. Any weekend you drive to Ruidoso for some fun at the horseraces or skiing or hiking in the cool mountains, a half dozen herds will appear between Bronco and that highway junction east of the Capitans. The ones on the ranch southwest of Loop 250 and Interstate 20 are often visible as you zip between Midland and Odessa. I guess kids don't look out the car window much. Everybody writes off the view on the Llano as BORING BORING BORING and more BORING. It takes effort and attention to perceive the subtleties within the landscape."

"I think I figured out how pronghorn modify the landscape. Pronghorns can carry seeds on their coats, and in their hooves, and they graze on woody forbs so they must process some seeds through the gastro-intestinal tract. I remember you saying I had the only population of Menodora in Midland County when you did the plant survey. In fact, it was growing where we found the bones and skull from a pronghorn that died last year. I remember where it was -- it was out in that area where the pronghorns hang out in the late winter and early spring. It is at that ridge with shallow soil and even a little bit of a rock outcropping. Menodora must be an ice-cream plant to pronghorn. I know that is not the only ridge like it in the county -- I have seen them when I cowboy for the neighbors."

"I haven't been on all those ranches. There may be more populations of Menodora in the county."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Now that I know what Menodora is, I will look for it on the other ranches."

"Critters that meander around aren't doing it willy-nilly. They know where different plants grow. Some are probably even epicures, seeking out particular plants at certain times. MMMMMMM, where is that wonderful little patch of lemoncillo so I can smell pretty for the girls???"


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