Letter | Published:

Undesirable evolutionary consequences of trophy hunting

Nature volume 426, pages 655658 (11 December 2003) | Download Citation



Phenotype-based selective harvests, including trophy hunting, can have important implications for sustainable wildlife management if they target heritable traits1,2,3. Here we show that in an evolutionary response to sport hunting of bighorn trophy rams (Ovis canadensis) body weight and horn size have declined significantly over time. We used quantitative genetic analyses, based on a partly genetically reconstructed pedigree from a 30-year study of a wild population in which trophy hunting targeted rams with rapidly growing horns4, to explore the evolutionary response to hunter selection on ram weight and horn size. Both traits were highly heritable, and trophy-harvested rams were of significantly higher genetic ‘breeding value’ for weight and horn size than rams that were not harvested. Rams of high breeding value were also shot at an early age, and thus did not achieve high reproductive success5. Declines in mean breeding values for weight and horn size therefore occurred in response to unrestricted trophy hunting, resulting in the production of smaller-horned, lighter rams, and fewer trophies.

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We thank the many students, colleagues, volunteers and assistants that contributed to this research over the past 30 years. B. Wishart initiated the Ram Mountain project. Our research was funded by the Alberta Conservation Association, Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division, Alberta Recreation, Sports, Parks and Wildlife Foundation, Eppley Foundation for Research, Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, National Geographic Society, Natural Environment Research Council (UK), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (Canada), and the Université de Sherbrooke. We are grateful for the logistical support of the Alberta Forest Service.

Author information


  1. Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK

    • David W. Coltman
    •  & Paul O'Donoghue
  2. Alberta Department of Sustainable Development, Fish and Wildlife Division, Box 1059, Canmore, Alberta T0L 0M0, Canada

    • Jon T. Jorgenson
  3. Montana Conservation Science Institute, Missoula, Montana 59803, USA

    • John T. Hogg
  4. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E9, Canada

    • Curtis Strobeck
  5. Département de biologie, Université de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, Québec J1K 2R1, Canada

    • Marco Festa-Bianchet


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Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to David W. Coltman.

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