Bighorns are a wild sheep species native to North America, aptly named for the big horns sported by all adult individuals.
Horns aside, rams – the adult males – are also known for settling most fights by ramming their heads into one another.
But why exactly do rams headbutt?
The main reason why rams headbutt is for reproduction. Males usually use their body and horn size as rank status, but they often engage in epic fights to gain mating access to a particular female. Sometimes, rams also headbutt for dominance, to fight off intruders, and to protect their herd. Young rams may headbutt during play or hit their horns against rocks when they are ill or stressed.
There are also other reasons why the rams headbutt. Read on to find out which they are and learn other interesting facts.
5 Reasons Why Rams Headbutt
Reproduction plays a big role in the bighorn sheep male behavior. Males don’t generally engage in fights with other males to defend the territory, but they headbutt each other to assert dominance in the herd.
Reproduction aside, there are only a handful of other reasons why rams may headbutt.
1. For Dominance
Fighting for dominance is a common thing in the animal world. Males of most species – and, above all, males of species that live in groups – fight each other to assert their role as group leaders and claim territory.
As far as bighorn sheep are concerned, the social structures are divided between males and females.
All bighorn sheep are gregarious, sometimes living in herds of up to 100 individuals – even though smaller herds of 10 or fewer sheep are more common.
Rams generally form their own bachelor herds and live separately from females and the young. Within their flock, rams headbutt to assert dominance.
Younger adults usually challenge the older group leader. The two males ram their heads into one another until one gives up.
The winner assumes the role of herd leader and can sometimes engage in homosexual activity with other herd members, with the subordinates playing the role of estrous females.
2. To Impress Potential Mates
Even though rams headbutt for dominance, they don’t fight for territory. By becoming a bachelor herd leader, a ram generally ensures access to the preferred females during mating season.
In the mating ritual, rams use the size of their bodies and horns as a symbol of status. Nevertheless, females usually accept more males. This could lead to clashes between a dominant male and his subordinates.
When this happens, ram headbutt to fight off other males and gain mating access to a particular ewe.
Generally, younger males only mate if the dominant ram in their herd is killed or if they are strong enough to fight off the leader.
3. To Fight Off Predators
Despite the violent clashes that rams engage in, bighorn sheep are generally peaceful creatures.
They don’t usually attack other animals or humans, although rams (and even ewes and lambs) are known to sometimes headbutt into predators or potential threats.
Bighorn predators include coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, and golden eagles. Humans sometimes hunt bighorns, too.
While these herbivores generally avoid humans and hide when they feel that predators are around, there have been reported cases of rams smashing into predators.
Moreover, some rams can develop abnormal behaviors and headbutt humans or things on purpose.
There are few studies on the bighorn’s head strike force; however, considering that a domestic ram caused fatal injuries to its owners, it is unwise to provoke these sheep.
4. To Play
As mentioned above, headbutting plays an important role in asserting dominance, but clashes are also part of the play.
Playful social behaviors are mostly observed in lambs and young adults, although rams and ewes of all ages can play.
Scientists recorded evidence of social contact patterns that include buttheads, butts (where one individual uses its head and horns to bump into the body of another individual), and clashes that include rear leg kicks followed by headbutts.
However, not all play interactions are violent. When playing, rams, and even ewes and lambs, can also be seen engaging in light forehead-to-forehead touches or face rubbing.
In rams, the main difference between play and dominance fights is that play generally lasts minutes rather than hours and is much less violent.
5. Neurological Disorders
Sometimes, rams – but also ewes – can be seen with their heads pressed against a tree or rock. Many people interpret it as headbutting, but it is actually a sign of a neurological disorder called polioencephalomalacia.
This disease can affect young sheep. Clinical signs range from recumbency and blindness to convulsions and head pressing.
Head pressing can also be observed in rams affected by brain damage due to headbutting.
Do Ewes Headbutt Too?
It should now be clear why the rams headbutt, but what about ewes? Do they headbutt too?
As a matter of fact, they do. Unlike rams, ewes don’t headbutt to assert dominance or for mating, but they often headbutt opportunistic lambs that want to feed and other females for play purposes.
Generally, they only headbutt with males while they are very young and still living in the herd they were born into.
Ewes can also headbutt other animals or even humans if they feel threatened. When attacked, the herd generally sticks together, but a lone sheep could sometimes attack. This behavior is more common in males, however.
Can A Ram’s Headbutt Injure You?
A bighorn’s ram headbutt can definitely injure you – a ram could even kill you with just one strike.
Bighorns might be herbivores, but they are relatively large animals. Adult rams can weigh 350 pounds or more and reach speeds up to 40 miles per hour.
During ramming, these sheep can generate impact forces up to 3,400 Newton. This is the equivalent of about 765 pounds of force – enough to kill you with a strike.
To put things into perspective, the average lion has a strike force of about 500 pounds, with only the largest individuals reaching a paw force higher than 800 pounds.
Fortunately, bighorn sheep rarely attack humans. However, you should avoid them in the wild, or you could end up badly injured.
Bighorn rams headbutt for reasons ranging from mating and dominance to play. Sometimes, people believe they headbutt because they are sick; however, the head pressing symptoms are generally non-aggressive and likely only serve to relieve pain.
While wild rams – and wild sheep in general – are docile creatures that don’t attack humans, a ram headbutting you could end up with bad injuries, including fatal ones.