What’s happening to the Saiga?


Over the span of just a few weeks, an astounding 120,000 or so Saiga antelope have simply dropped dead in Kazakhstan.  Apparently, Saiga are somewhat prone to mass die-offs and they occur in very dense herds with highly synchronized fawning.  These conditions can promote rapid disease transmission, but the kicker is that no one seems to know what disease is affecting them.

USFWS photo

USFWS photo

I’ve always been a fan of antelopes and related ungulates.  Here in the US, we’ve mostly been exposed to the African and Arabian species, so I find it fascinating to learn more about the Asian (including Indian) species.  On the central Asian steppes, there are still places where truly vast herds roam, the Pleistocene-relic Saiga among them. The winters are brutally cold there, and the Saiga develop a thick whitish coat for insulation and crypsis in winter.

Among the class Mammalia, all antelope used to be classified within the Artiodactyla with their fellow even-toed, hoofed relatives.  Recent genetic evidence, however, has confirmed that whales (order Cetacea) evolved from this group, thereby spurring a taxonomic reshuffling such that the orders have been merged into Cetartiodactyla! Here are the Indian and Asian antelopes (kind of) as we understand their affinities today (missing from this list will be some bigger antelope like Nilgai that have been aligned with cattle in the subfamily Bovinae):

Cetartidactyla, Bovidae, Antilopinae – These are the true antelopes in the subfamily Antilopinae in the family Bovidae, in the order Cetartiodactyla:

Saiga

Mongolian Gazelle

Mongolian Gazelle, by Kirk Olson.

Mongolian Gazelle, by Kirk Olson.

Blackbuck

Blackbuck in Velavadar National Park, India.  Photo by Gulam Ahmed Dagia.

Blackbuck in Velavadar National Park, India. Photo by Gulam Ahmed Dagia.

Goitered Gazelle

Goitered Gazelle in the Gobi, by Alastair Rae

Goitered Gazelle in the Gobi, by Alastair Rae

Cetartidactyla, Bovidae, Caprinae – The Tibetan Antelope is ecologically a furry, cold desert gazelle – kind of like Saiga – but we now understand that they’re really goats that act like antelopes instead of antelopes in their own right.

Tibetan Antelope

Photo by Tibet Vista.

Photo by Tibet Vista.

Beside their cloven hooves and herbivorous diets, another thing that unites these species is that we don’t know nearly enough about them.

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