Saiga antelope

Saiga tatarica

TAXONOMY

Capra tatarica (Linnaeus, 1766), "Ural Steppes," western Kazakhstan.

OTHER COMMON NAMES English: Saiga; French: Sai'ga.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Saiga antelopes have a head and body length of 3.3-5.6 ft (100-170 cm), tail length of 2.4-5.2 in (6-13 cm), shoulder height of 2.0-2.6 ft (60-80 cm), and weight of 66-152 lb (30-69 kg). Their most distinctive feature is a large head with a bulging shape and with a huge, inflatable humped nose that hangs over its mouth and with downward-pointing nostrils. This fleshy nose has a unique internal structure, with convoluted bones, mucous-secreting glands, and many hairs. The large nose is believed to filter out airborne dust during summer migrations and to heat the cold air before getting to the lungs during winters. The eyes appear to stand out on small, bony protrusions when viewed straight on. Their senses of hearing and smell are poorly developed, but their eyesight is acute, and they are able see danger up to 0.6 mi (1 km) away. Males possess a pair of long, semi-translucent, waxy colored horns with ring-like ridges along their lower two-thirds of length, which grow 8-10 in (20-25 cm)

I Saiga tatarica I Procapra gutturosa long. Except for their unusually large snout and horns, they resemble small sheep. They have long, spindly legs that support a slightly robust body. The hooves are slightly broader at the rear. During summer months, they have a cinnamon-buff to yellowish red back and neck with a paler underside. The summer coat is short and almost smooth. In the winter, the coat becomes denser and longer, and it turns a muted gray to almost a white color on the back and neck and a light brownish gray shade on the underside. The winter coat, looking wool-like, may be up to twice as long and 70% thicker than the summer coat. A course set of bristly hairs protects them from the harsh weather. They have a very short tail that is always light in color. There is a small mane on the underside of the neck.

DISTRIBUTION

Northern Caucasus, Kazakhstan, northern Uzbekistan, southwestern Mongolia, and Singkiang, China.

HABITAT

Dry steppes and semideserts. Herds are found primarily on flat, open areas (such as plains) covered with low growing vegetation (such as grasses) that do not contain rugged terrain and hills. They generally do not move more than about 2-4 mi (3-6 km) per hour while grazing. But, may move 75-125 mi (120-200 km) within two days when severe frost cuts off their food supplies.

BEHAVIOR

Saiga antelopes are a very timid and easily startled species, which can cause immediate flights for safety. They are a polygamous species. During the breeding season they congregate into groups consisting of 5-10 females and one male. Males are very protective of their harem of females, with violent fights often breaking out (and sometimes leading to death) between males. Because males do not feed during the mating season, rather they spend most of their time defending their harem; they grow very weak near the end of the breeding season. As a consequence, male mortality often reaches 80-90%. At the end of breeding season, herds will form consisting of 30-40 individuals, but will form again at the beginning of next year's breeding season. They are a nomadic herding species, migrating as a group for food, and in order to escape such weather as snowstorms and droughts. Seasonal migrations move north in the spring to the summer grazing grounds, and return south ward in the fall. Spring migrations may include 200,000 individuals in a herd, while summer groups have only 30-40 members. They have no fixed home range, and usually walk 48-72 mi (80-120 km) in a day. When they march, their heads are often kept low to the ground. They tend to avoid areas of broken terrain or dense cover because such ground is not conducive to fast running. They are very good runners, and are able to reach speeds up to 48 mph (80 kph). During the day, they graze and visit watering holes, but may rest during midday. Before night they dig a small round depression in the ground that serves as their bed.

FEEDING ECOLOGY AND DIET

Saiga antelopes are herbivores, grazing on over 100 different plant species; however, the most important are grasses, herbs, prostrate summer cypress, saltworts, fobs, sagebrush, steppe lichens, and other plants containing salt. They will often eat plants that contain poisonous substances, which are not eaten by other animals. They will visit watering holes about twice a day when moist plants are not available.

REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY

Polygamous. They have a high rate of reproduction where in a favorable season they may grow in population up to 60% in a single year. The rutting season begins in the wintering grounds, when males become territorial in an attempt to gain a harem of usually 5-25 females. During the mating season, which only lasts 6-7 days, males will only eat snow, using most of its time to defend its harem from lurking males. Females reach sexual maturity at 7-8 months, while males reach sexual maturity at 20-24 months. The breeding period lasts from late November to late December, with births occurring from the end of March to May. The gestation period is about 140-150 days, and usually gives birth to two, sometimes three, young after the first year (in which only one is normally born). Mothers usually drop their calves within a few days of each other. Newborns will lie concealed and immobile for the first three days, and then will begin to graze at 4-8 days old on bits of green food. The lactation period lasts for about four months, and the weaning period is 3-4 months. Very few animals live beyond 3.5 years of age, but known lifespan in the wild is 6-12 years, with males especially susceptible to death after fasting during the mating season, just before the cold winter season.

CONSERVATION STATUS

Critically Endangered. They are threatened from increased habitat loss and degradation primarily from human disturbances, along with the continuing presence of illegal hunting for meat and male horns (for medicinal properties). Their most dangerous predators are wolves, foxes, and birds of prey.

SIGNIFICANCE TO HUMANS

They are hunted for their fur, meat, and horns. The horns are considered as their most valuable feature. Horns are ground up and used in Chinese medicines to reduce fevers. They occasionally destroy agricultural plants and feed on crops. ♦

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