Geography Matters, Illustrated by Pronghorns, Mountain Goats, and Old Testament Warfare
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
And the wild beasts of the field are mine. (Psalm 50:11b).
The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats. (Psalm 104:18a)
Geography matters. Consequently, so does the ability to master the challenges of specific geography. When carnivores are hunting for food, which is worth more, to a fleeing herbivore, speed or agility? It depends upon the geography involved. That is like asking: which was needed more, in Old Testament warfare, infantry or cavalry?
To answer these questions, consider the difference between infantry and cavalry, during Old Testament times, then compare that difference to the relative traits of two North American mammals, the pronghorn and the mountain goat.
GEOGRAPHIC CHALLENGES IN OLD TESTAMENT WARFARE
In his insightful summary of Bible battles, Stephen Leston provides a geography-related comparison of the ancient Hebrews’ infantry and cavalry:
Because Judah’s army had to defend their mountains, a contingent of foot soldiers was nonnegotiable. Elsewhere in Judah, valleys and plains demanded the use of chariots—the war vehicle of choice during this time in history [i.e., the time of the divided kingdoms in Israel, after Solomon’s reign and before the Babylonian Captivity].
[Quoting Stephen Leston, ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO BIBLE BATTLES (Barbour Books, 2014, at page 165, emphasis added.]
Think of it—chariots (during Old Testament times) were virtually worthless in the jagged and jumbled terrain of the Judean foothills. Imagine trying to drive a chariot up or down or across a mountainside mixed with bumpy rocks and boulders, loose gravel and felsenmeer, erratic cracks and crevices, gaping potholes and drop-offs! Militarily speaking, the irregular topography of mountain slopes requires infantry—foot soldiers—uniquely equipped for versatile mobility.
Yet the opposite was true (during Old Testament times) of the flat plains and valleys of Israel (Isaiah 22:7). Horse-drawn chariots can outrun and outmaneuver warriors on foot. In open fields, fast-wheeled mobility of chariots can out-charge infantry offensively, and can defensively evade any onrush of soldiers on foot.
In short, foot soldiers were essential for mountainous warfare, because infantry have all-terrain agility that horse-drawn chariots lack. Likewise, chariots are advantageous in the flat plains, because cavalry have superhuman speed that surpasses even the fastest of foot soldiers.
This same contrast is illustrated in the mammals of America’s West: pronghorns race across the open prairies, to escape predators (like cougars or coyotes), while mountain goats prance up and down mountain slopes, evading carnivore predators, with physical agility that pronghorns lack. In short, God loves variety in both animals and geography, so He has fitted different kinds of animals to fill different kinds of geographical niches.
God chose to fill the earth with different kinds of life. All over the world, we see His providence demonstrated in ecological systems. Different creatures live in a variety of habitats, interacting with one another and a mix of geophysical factors—like rain, rocks, soil, wind, and sunlight. … Different types of habitats all over the planet collectively host an ecological smörgåsbord of alternative habitat opportunities. … Marmots make a modest living above timberline in the windblown and mostly cold arctic or alpine tundra. Sponges use filter-feeding to acquire underwater food in coral reefs. … Salmon (and steelhead trout) begin life in freshwater streams, survive a shocking salinity change as they migrate to oceanic saltwater, and then brave a reverse version of salinity shock as they return to their native freshwater streams to reproduce.… Some ecological conditions might work for a world inhabited by just a few kinds of animals and/or plants, but God did not want a monotonous planet — so He designed an earth that could and would host a huge variety of lifeform kinds.
[Quoting James J. S. Johnson, “God Fitted Habitats for Biodiversity”, ACTS & FACTS, 42(3):10-12 (March 2013), posted at http://www.icr.org/article/god-fitted-habitats-for-biodiversity , emphasis added.] This point is easily illustrated by pronghorns and mountain goats, different herbivores that survive (and thrive) on the terrains of very different habitats.
GEOGRAPHIC CHALLENGES FOR PRONGHORNS OF THE PRAIRIES
Recently I asked a friend to recall the beauty of the prairies. Part of his reply included mention of pronghorns:
What I love about the prairie:
The wind — intermittent here in Alabama, a near-constant on the prairie, whether in Texas heat or North Dakota cold, but always refreshing. I don’t care how hot the air is so long as it isn’t stuffy.
The grass — wheat, alfalfa, small grain, or just grass — the way it blows in the wind and looks like the rising and falling of the ocean waves.
The corn — the opposite of wheat and small grains, the way it stands full inside the fence-lines and looks like the farm has truly been blessed by God’s bounty.
The pronghorns — the sight of a herd of pronghorns running through grassy prairies is truly magnificent.
The endless views — panoramas that extend as far as the eye can see, and make one feel truly free.
[Quoting Dr. John Eidsmoe, email of August 14th AD2016, emphasis added.] Notice what Dr. Eidsmoe portrays as the memorable behavior of prairie pronghorns: “running through grassy prairies”. Pronghorns (Antilocapra americana)—often called the American “antelope”(1)—are famous for their cross-country running, “in plain view”.
Since the prairies are wide open spaces, with few places to hide from carnivorous predators (such as coyotes, wolves, or cougars), the speed of the pronghorn when fleeing, is a must for pronghorns to survive and thrive on the plains.
Pronghorns are the fleetest of North American mammals and can attain speeds of 60 miles (96 km) per hour. Their enlarged heart and windpipes virtually pour oxygen into their blood and muscles, allowing them to sustain speeds of 45 miles (72 km) per hour [long enough to discourage pursuing carnivore predators]. They can cross the length of a football field [of 300 feet] in 10 strides and 3.5 seconds [!].
[Quoting Mark Elbroch & Kurt Rinehart, PETERSON REFERENCE GUIDE TO BEHAVIOR OF NORTH AMERICAN ANIMALS (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), page 231.]
Another physical feature, that helps the pronghorn’s cross-country running ability, is its feet – its two toes are long, pointed, and cushioned, equipping the hooves to serve as shock absorbers, when the pronghorn flees chasing carnivores.
Pronghorn bodies are also well-equipped for life on mid-continent plains, as heartland prairies experience extremes of cold and hot, which temperature range is tolerated by the pronghorn physiology—retaining heat when it’s cold, and radiating heat when it’s hot:
Pronghorn are especially designed for life on the open plains. … Since their body hair is hollow and can be lifted or flattened at will, pronghorn are able to adjust to temperature extremes. Standing their hair erect allows air to cool their skin, whereas laying their hair down flat retains heat.
[Quoting John Hergenrather, Tom Vail, Mike Oard, & Dennis Bokovoy, YOUR GUIDE TO YELLOWSTONE AND GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARKS (Master Books, 2012), page 138. See also, accord, , “Pronghorn”, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC BOOK OF MAMMALS, volume II, K – Z (National Geographic, 1981; Philip B. Silcott, general editor), page 468.]
Whether grazing in well-watered grasses or semi-arid scrubland, pronghorns are committed to living in the open, in “plain view” (pardon the pun). Having no nest or den, they rest in the open grassland (or scrubland), making no attempt to escape heavy rainfall, even giving birth right out in the open, with only some tall grasses or shrubs for privacy! [Stan Tekiela, MAMMALS OF COLORADO FIELD GUIDE (Adventure Publications, 2007), page 303.]
Due to the pronghorn’s superior speed, pronghorns are rarely overtaken by cougars or wolves or other four-legged carnivores.(2) Thus, the prairie cougar’s challenge, when stalking a herd of pronghorns, is comparable to a foot soldier trying to chase down horse-drawn chariots!
GEOGRAPHIC CHALLENGES FOR MOUNTAIN GOATS OF THE ROCKIES
Unlike the speed-racing pronghorns, mountain goats (of the Rockies) are famous for their agile footwork, miraculously maintaining their balance, up and down and across rock-strewn terrains of precarious mountain slopes.
It is this fancy footwork (integrated with the total agility of their narrow-profiled bodies) that enables the mountain goat to routinely elude hungry carnivores, such as mountain lions.
Consider, first, the agility of a mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus), the sure-hoofed bovid that habituates the heights of North America’s Rocky Mountains and Cascade Range.(3)
“For those of us who admit to some fear of heights, the Mountain Goat is an animal to be admired … This shaggy animal, its back hunched in a manner somewhat suggestive of a Bison, is a master at negotiating the steepest of precipices. Mountain Goats are truly alpine creatures. They commonly rest on high-elevation snowfields and find most of their food among the plants of alpine meadows. Their hooves are structured to [optimize] balance and grip; the outer hoof is strongly reinforced and the bottom is lined with rubbery material, making the whole structure rather like a good hiking boot. These animals nonchalantly cross dizzying ledges, sometimes even at a trot.”(4)
In fact, the high-altitude dexterity of the mountain goat is so phenomenal that it routinely spends most of its time on precipitous terrain steeper than a 40 degree angle, and sometimes at pitches steeper than 60 degrees[!], especially during winter. Furthermore, the leg bones of the mountain goat are engineered to maximize a functional mix of precision balancing (such as perching all four hooves on a small spot), front-forward pulling power, propulsion leverage and maneuverability (for running and jumping), and stability (due to a low center of gravity) against tipping over.(5)
“A mountain goat climbs with three-point suspension. … Lifting one limb at a time [it] frequently pauses to assess the situation, tests the footing, and if needed turns back and selects a different route. Slow, sure consistency allows life on rock steeper than the angle of repose. Because they are most likely the ones to find themselves in a tight spot, kids do most of the go-for-broke climbing. Although a kid might take four or five missteps per year, it salvages the situation almost every time.”(5)
Thus, the mountain goats are aptly designed for moving on rocky slopes. Mountain goats are instinctively careful, and they apply their characteristic agility, as they test their environment.
But without the right physical traits for maintaining balance on rugged rocks—traits which God installed on Day 6 of Creation Week—mountain goats could not thrive, as they do, upon the harsh talus slopes and felsenmeer of their high-elevation habitat.
“The [mountain goat hoofprint] track’s squarish imprint is created by the hoof’s spreading tips. The sides of the toes consist of hard keratin, like that of a horse hoof. Each foot’s two wraparound toenails are used to catch and hold on to cracks and tiny knobs. … The front edge of the hoof tapers to a point, which digs into dirt or packed snow when [it] is going uphill. In contrast to a horse’s concave hoof, which causes the animal to walk on the rim of its toenail, a [mountain] goat’s hoof has a flexible central pad that protrudes beyond the nail. The pad’s rough texture provides [skid-resistant] friction on smooth rock or ice yet is pliant enough to impress itself into irregularities on a stone. Four hooves X 2 toes per hoof = 8 gripping soles per animal. As [mountain] goats descend a slope the toes spread widely, adjusting tension to fine-tune the grip. … This feature makes them more likely to catch onto something. It also divides the downward force of the weight on the hoof so that some of the animal’s total weight is directed sideways. Because there is less net force on each downward [pressure] line, the foot is less likely to slide. Think of it as the fanning out of downward forces over numerous points of friction.”(5)
In a word, BALANCE. God purposefully designed high-elevation mountain goats for balance, because living life among high alpine rocks is a high-risk lifestyle.
[Quoting James J. S. Johnson, “Balancing High Risks: Mountain Climbing and the First Amendment”, posted at https://bibleworldadventures.com/2016/06/10/balancing-high-risks-mountain-climbing-and-the-first-amendment/ .]
So, when carnivores are hunting for food, which is worth more, to a fleeing herbivore, speed or agility?
If fleeing to precarious precipices of inaccessible rock-cliffs, agility is what is needed – and God gave that trait to the mountain goats of the Rockies. However, if fleeing across the wide open flatland of the grassy plains, speed is what is needed –and God gave that trait to the prairie pronghorns.
Geography matters. That’s true in human warfare. And it’s also true in the beautifully diversified world of animal habitats, because God loves variety. Accordingly, God programmed His many and multifarious creatures with diversified traits to match – and to “fill” – His geographically diverse earth. If we have eyes to see it, God’s glory is displayed all around us, even in Earth’s geography and in the creatures God has made to fill it.
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(1) Pronghorns, although often called “antelope”, grow horns differently from both bovid antelope (“true” antelopes) and cervids (the deer family). Pronghorns are compared to (yet not the same as) bovid antelope, cervids, and goats. See Mark Elbroch & Kurt Rinehart, PETERSON REFERENCE GUIDE TO BEHAVIOR OF NORTH AMERICAN ANIMALS (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), pages 231-237. Elbroch & Rinehart observe: “Perhaps the most distinctive physical attribute of pronghorns, which places them [taxonomically] somewhere between cervids [i.e., deer] and bovids [i.e., bovine-like mammals], is their horns. Like bovids, their horns increase in size each year and are attached to the skull by bony, spikelike extensions projecting up from the head. Unlike bovids, and more like cervids (which shed their antlers annually), pronghorns shed their horn sheaths each year. The bony projection on the skull remains, but the tough sheath that forms the horn is pushed off by the growth of the new one beneath.” [Ibid., page 231.] See also, accord, John Hergenrather, Tom Vail, Mike Oard, & Dennis Bokovoy, YOUR GUIDE TO YELLOWSTONE AND GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARKS (Master Books, 2012), page 138, saying: “Pronghorn, often mistakenly called antelope, have horns made of keratin like cattle, but shed their ‘prolonged’ horns like deer, placing them in a unique category between the cattle and deer kind”.
(2) In crisis circumstances, involving maternal protection, the hunted may turn into the hunter! To see photographs of a bold mother pronghorn, chasing a coyote away from her fawns, see http://www.yellowstonen.com/Resources/25%20pronghorn%20chasing%20coyote%202.jpg? .
(3) The rope-like “backbone” ridge chain of North America’s West is called the Western Cordillera. Included in its geographic system are the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Range, the primary high-elevation range of most North American mountain goats. See George Constanz, ICE, FIRE, AND NUTCRACKERS: A ROCKY MOUNTAIN ECOLOGY (University of Utah Press, 2014), page 215.
(4) John Kricher, A FIELD GUIDE TO ROCKY MOUNTIAN AND SOUTHWEST FORESTS (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), pages 235-236. As illustrated in Job 39:1, Israel’s mountain goat is named for how this bearded climber masters its rocky alpine habitat: ya‘alê-sâla‘ literally means “ascenders of cliff-rock”. See also Psalm 104:18a.