An Ultimate Ungulate Fact SheetReturn to Artiodactyla

Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Chordata
    Class: Mammalia
      Order: Artiodactyla
        Family: Bovidae
          Subfamily: Caprinae
            Genus: Ovis

Ovis canadensis

      Bighorn sheep


Ovis canadensis [Shaw, 1804].  
Citation: Nat. Misc., 51, text to pl. 610.
Type locality: Canada, Alberta, Mountains on Bow River, near Exshaw.

Click on the pictures above for a larger view of the photographs

General Characteristics

Body Length: 150-195 cm / 5-6.5 ft.
Shoulder Height: 80-100 cm / 2.7-3.3 ft.
Tail Length: 10-15 cm / 4-6 in.
Weight: 45-135 kg / 99-297 lb.

The smooth coat consists of guard hairs and dense fleece, varying from dark brown to grayish to pale tan depending on the region.  The belly, rump patch, back of legs, muzzle, and eye patch are all white.  The brown horns are found in both sexes, but are much larger in males.  In females, the horns are slender and sabre-like, never forming more than half a curl.  In males, the horns are massive and curl up, back over the ears, then curve down, forward, and up past the cheeks.  In old (7-8 year old) males the horns may begin a second curl, with a spread of 83 cm / 33 inches.

Ontogeny and Reproduction

Gestation Period: 175 days.
Young per Birth: 1
Weaning: At 4-6 months.
Sexual Maturity: Females at 2.5 years, males at 3 years, although they do not generally breed until age 7.
Life span: 14 years.

Ecology and Behavior

As one might expect from a mountain dweller, the bighorn sheep is extremely agile and nimble, able to move quickly over uneven, steep surfaces.  Bighorn sheep are remarkable swimmers.  These sheep are renowned for the spectacular competition among males during the breeding season.  Dominance hierarchies among males are based on horn size, and males with significantly smaller horns generally act subordinate to large horned males.  Males with similar size horns, however, battle amongst each other for breeding privileges in the style of a face-off.  Facing each other from a distance, they run towards each other with heads lowered, rearing up and crashing their horns together.  Population densities average at 2 animals per square kilometer.

Family group: Usually in single sex herds of around 10 animals.  In winters, mixed herds of 100 animals may form.
Diet: Grasses.
Main Predators: Wolf, cougar, golden eagle, coyote, bears, bobcat, lynx.


Alpine meadows and foothills near rocky cliffs in the Rocky Mountains.

Range Map (Compiled from Shackleton, 1997)

Conservation Status

The bighorn sheep is classified as a low risk, conservation dependent species by the IUCN (1996).  Both O. c. californiana and O. c. nelsoni are classified as low risk,conservation dependent subspecies.  O. c. mexicana is considered to be vulnerable, and O. c. cremnobates is endangered.  O. c. weemsi is classified as critically endangered.


Ovis (Latin) a sheep.  -ensis (Latin) suffix meaning belonging to.  However, canadensis is is somewhat misleading, as this sheep's range includes land as far south as Mexico.

Literature Cited

Geist, V.  1990.  Mountain sheep (Ovis nivicola, Ovis dalli, Ovis canadensis).  In Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals.  Edited by S. P. Parker.  New York: McGraw-Hill.  Volume 5, pp. 554-560.

Nowak, R. M. [editor]. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World (Fifth Edition). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Shackleton, D. M. [Editor] and the IUCN/SSC Caprinae Specialist Group.  1997.  Wild Sheep and Goats and their Relatives.  Status Survey and Action Plan for Caprinae.   IUCN: Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder [editors]. 1993. Mammal Species of the World (Second Edition). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.  Available online at

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© Brent Huffman,
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