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Laboratory of Holly Ernest



Pronghorn landscape genetics, migration genomics, and disease ecology

Lab researchers: Melanie LaCava, Holly Ernest

The pronghorn (Antilocapra Americana) is the only surviving species of the family Antilocapridae. Pronghorn are the second fastest land mammal on earth, effortlessly running at 30-40 mph and topping out at speeds around 60 mph. This specialized adaptation for speed is attributed to an evolutionary arms race with their historic top predator, the now-extinct American cheetah.

It has been estimated that 30-40 million pronghorn once roamed across North America. Due to overharvest and habitat loss and degradation, Wyoming pronghorn reached their lowest numbers in 1906 when there were just 2,000 of them left in the state. Drastic alterations to hunting regulations and strict management allowed the species to reach a peak of 600,000 animals in Wyoming in 1984, but pronghorn have continued declining in recent years to reach about 371,000 animals in Wyoming in 2013.

Despite these population fluctuations, Wyoming contains more than half of the remaining pronghorn in the world, making this state the stronghold for the future of this unique and emblematic species. Genetic research is becoming increasingly crucial for successful management of wildlife, as it provides insight into the genetic health and evolutionary potential that define populations, which might otherwise be undetectable.


Pronghorn in WyomingLandscape genetics

Linking genetic data with landscape information allows us to:

  • Assess genetic variation within and between populations relative to their location in Wyoming
  • Look for evidence of genetic population structure that corresponds to natural and man-made landscape characteristics
  • Help identify barriers to gene flow such as major highways and wildlife-unfriendly fencing that inhibit natural movement
  • Inform management of the species and provide a baseline for genetic monitoring of Wyoming pronghorn in the future


Migration genomics

Pronghorn are partially migratory, meaning that within a given population, some individuals may migrate, while others do not. Migratory routes, behavior and physiology have been investigated in pronghorn, but analysis at the genetic level is lacking. Using next generation sequencing, we can explore the genome for regions associated with the adaptation of migration, and search for the genetic mechanisms controlling this highly specialized behavior. Learn more about migration genomics >


Pronghorn disease ecology

One of the most impactful diseases pronghorn experience is Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD), which is caused by either epizootic hemorrhagic disease virus (EHDV) or bluetongue virus (BTV) and is transmitted by an insect vector. EHDV/BTV outbreaks can cause massive die-offs of pronghorn in Wyoming, but some animals produce antibodies to these viruses and survive.  We will evaluate genetic factors associated with disease susceptibility and use molecular pedigree reconstruction to determine associations between family  relationships and disease.


Pronghorn in grassPronghorn resources:


Educational resources:



Byers, John A. 1997. American Pronghorn: Social Adaptations and Ghosts of Predators Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

O’Gara Bart W., Jim D. Yoakum. 2004. Pronghorn: Ecology and Management. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department. 2014. Annual Report.