Back in May 2007 I wrote a few articles about the world’s wild sheep (Welcome…. to the world of sheep and Return…. to the world of sheep). If you’re here for the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, pygmy mammoths and lake monster photos, you might regard wild sheep as pretty boring animals. But they’re clearly not – they’re incredible and spectacular in appearance, often surprisingly large, and they live wild lives in beautiful, wild locations. And they’re highly popular, and the source of great fascination, among a great many people interested in animals – those 2007 articles have been good at pulling in the hits.
Among several of these species (I’m thinking in particular of the spectacular Argali Ovis ammon of central and eastern Asia), numerous subspecies have been named. As is so often the case with polytypic species, it’s often extremely hard to find images of all (or even most) of these subspecies should you want to. While at the Institut royal des Sciences naturelles de Belgique in Brussels last year, I enjoyed seeing taxiderm specimens of three of these subspecies together. In the image above, you can see (left to right) a Pamir argali or Marco Polo argali O. a. polii (notable for the pronounced spiralling of its horns: see the large, trophy-hunted specimen below), Altai argali O. a. ammon and a Gobi argali O. a. darwini (notable for its incredibly thick horns with widely spaced ribbing). I’m not sure I’d ever seen images or taxiderm specimens of the Gobi argali before, so I scored some major nerd points here.
Argali are long-legged, large wild sheep, exceeding 200 kg in cases. They’re rare and declining across much of their range and now locally extinct in many areas. Part of this decline has been due to trophy hunting and poaching, but habitat disturbance and degradation caused by the impact of domestic livestock is increasingly important (Schuerholz 2001). The impact of trophy hunting is uncertain. Despite disdain for the practise both locally and globally, the numbers killed are supposed to be low (apparently 25 per annum*) and definitely generate significant revenue: in Tajikistan in 1995, hunters were able to kill argali for a fee of US$10,000-20,000. Between 1967 and 1989, as much as US$20 million is thought to have been generated by argali hunting (Lushchenkina 1994), though it is doubtful that much of this went back to local people and conservation (Reading et al. 2001).
* Though the actual number may be twice as high.
Maroney (2005) found that local people revere the animals and have a “strong conservation ethic” concerning the species, but noted that this conflicts with their desire to increase the number of domestic livestock they own, and the widespread belief that increased livestock number will not have an adverse affect on argali conservation (whereas it almost certainly will). Better integrated conservation schemes are desperately needed: while the number and size of protected areas has increased in Mongolia and elsewhere in recent years, few of these areas incorporate argali habitat and most of them are affected by poaching and over-grazing anyway (Reading et al. 2001).
The best known argali (viz, the one usually mentioned and/or illustrated in books) is the remarkable Marco Polo argali or Pamir argali from the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. It possesses the longest horns of any argali, with individual horns recorded as reaching nearly 2 m (measured along the spirals) in some individuals: the specimen shown here is thus not a particularly impressive individual. Despite frequent comments that the Marco Polo argali is the largest argali and thus the largest sheep, it is apparently exceeded in size by record-holding Altai and Gobi argalis, and some authors state that the Altai argali is the largest form (Maroney 2005).
Because the Marco Polo argali hybridises with the Kazakhstan argali O. a. collium, and is similar overall both to this form and the Tien Shan argali O. a. karelini, some authors have suggested that all three should be combined into the same taxon. However, Subbotin et al. (2007) showed via craniometric study that the Marco Polo argali is both morphologically consistent, and definitely separable from the other forms, so they argued that its distinction should be maintained. One interesting point made in this work is that the Marco Polo argali is comparatively well represented in global collections, with over 100 skulls available (among the larger collections, 37 are in the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University, 26 are in the Natural History Museum, London, and 22 are in the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, St. Petersburg). Most were collected in the last decades of the 19th century and first few decades of the 20th century. A global sample of round about 100 skulls might not sound like much, but it far exceeds the samples available for other forms of argali. It’s surely explained by the fact that this big-horned subspecies has specifically been targeted by hunters more than have other wild sheep.
May we hope that improved conservation and successful management allows these incredible animals to remain the denizens of the wild, remote Asian countryside they are so inimitably suited for. I long to see them in the wild myself. [Image below, by Liling Zhang, shows Tibetan argali walking among domestic sheep. From the IUCN/SSC Caprinae Specialist Group page].
For previous Tet Zoo articles on bovids and other artiodactyls, see…
- Dammit, and I sooo loved the ‘necks for sex’ hypothesis
- Welcome…. to the world of sheep
- Return…. to the world of sheep
- Giant killer pigs from hell
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 1: Khama
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 2: Eland
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 3: Okapi
- A ‘consensus cladogram’ for artiodactyls
- Pronghorn, “designed by committee” (pronghorns part I)
- Release the fossil pronghorns!! (pronghorns part II)
Refs – -
Lushchekina, A. 1994. The status of Argali in Kirgizstan, Tadjikistan, and Mongolia. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.
MARONEY, R. (2005). Conservation of argali Ovis ammon in western Mongolia and the Altai-Sayan Biological Conservation, 121 (2), 231-241 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2004.04.024
Reading, R. P., Amgalanbaatar, S. & Wingard, G. 2001. Argali sheep conservation and research activities in Mongolia. The Open Country 3, 25-32.
Schuerholz, G. 2001. Community based wildlife management (CBWM) in the Altai Sayan Ecoregion of Mongolia feasibility assessment: opportunities for and barriers to CBWM. WWF-Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar.
Subbotin, A. E., Kapitanova, D. V. & Lopatin, A. V. 2007. Factors of craniometric variability in argali, using an example of Ovis ammon polii (Bovidae, Artiodactyla). Doklady Biological Sciences 416, 845-848.