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The Wampahoofus: A Sad Evolutionary Tale (10/04)

My dad was a native Vermonter who was a Long Trail end-to-ender and hiked every side trail around Mt. Mansfield many, many times. He used to tell the following story about the legendary wampahoofus, the namesake of the beautiful trail on the flanks of Mansfield.

The wampahoofus was a large mammal, now extinct, that some say resembled a moose-gnu hybrid. Its worldwide range was limited to part of Mt. Mansfield, usually between 2600 and 3200 feet up.

Like many large mammals, the males and females didn’t have much to do with each other except during the period of the year devoted to courtship and mating. The rest of the year, the males wandered around Mt. Mansfield in a clockwise direction, grazing and enjoying the scenery, never descending into the valleys, never climbing to the very highest elevations. Females spent a few months a year in the higher reaches of Nebraska Notch, nursing their calves. (My dad’s great-grandfather recalled coming across five of the ungainly cows, each caring for one nursing calf. Quite a sight.) Most of the year, though, the females walked around Mansfield at a high level, although never on the ridgeline. Unlike the male, the female wampahoofus always went around the mountain in a counterclockwise direction. When males and females met at the wrong time of the year, they passed each other without a second look. At the right time of year, of course, they mated.

Now, after hundreds of generations of walking laterally across a slope, the legs of the wampahoofus adapted. The males, who went around the mountain in a clockwise direction, developed shorter right legs than left legs. The females, after eons of counterclockwise perambulation, began to grow shorter left legs than right legs.

This unusual evolutionary adaptation worked fine for many generations – but unfortunately, the uneven leg gene appeared to be dominant. The males’ right legs kept getting shorter and shorter, as did the females’ left legs. Eventually, when a couple met to mate, things just didn’t fit. The wampahoofus died out. Vermont – and the world – lost a truly unique creature.

To visit the Wampahoofus Trail, climb the Butler Lodge Trail from the Stevensville Trailhead in Underhill Center. Follow the trail around the back of the Lodge, pass the start of the Rock Garden Trail, and you’ll be traversing the haunts of the wondrous beast.