The many magnificent subspecies of Argali

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...

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.


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We have wild bighorn sheep here in my province. The place where I camp apparently has them in winter, though I've never seen a live one in that particular spot in all the summers I've gone there.

I did find a skeletonized female or juvenile though, killed by a black bear judging by the way the sun baked hide was rolled up in one piece along its back and the body completely stripped of flesh. The skull was in near perfect condition so I kept it.

As well, I happened to find a buried skull cap and horn bases from a huge male. Judging by the condition of the bone, it had been buried for a long while. Is there any way to roughly guess the age of a bone like this by looking at it?

One more question: We see a wild argali walking among domestic sheep in that last picture and I have to wonder: do hybrids ever happen?

I was wondering what sort of disease problems mingling wild and domesticate herds causes. In particular, do the wild herds help spread outbreaks between regions?

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 25 Feb 2011 #permalink

I've occasionally traveled into the Rocky Mountains, and seeing bighorns is always a major highlight (when it happens). Mountain goats are cool to spot as well, though their headgear is less impressive. It's pretty neat seeing those argali walking among domestic sheep; in a fit of anthropomorphization, one wonders what the argali make of the sheep. ;-) (I also wonder, like Hai-Ren, whether they, um, ever make something together.)

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 25 Feb 2011 #permalink

I saw a mountain goat once. We were on a family trip through some extremely mountainous region of the province, and I noticed some people stopped on the side of the road looking up a sheer cliff. I followed their eyeline and sure enough there he was, in plain view, perched on the vertical cliffside as calmly as if he was posing for them. I saw it for only a split second as we sped past, but it was one of the coolest things ever.

I always like seeing bighorn sheep while hiking (I live in Alaska). You rarely see them up close, but with binoculars it's pretty easy. Interestingly, the females and juveniles all stay together in groups, and they run around like birds, constantly changing direction. It's fun to watch, and they're not above suddenly charging down one side of the valley, passing 50 feet in front of you, and running up the other side.

Big males have oddly-grown horns more often than you'd think. Asymmetry is especially cool.

Some years ago, when it was really difficult to get into the territories these sheep were in (due to political differences), I read the book "The Great Arc of the Wild Sheep" by James L. Clark. I liked it a lot. One of the amazing things was that one of the record setters for horns for these animals was from a skull found after snowmelt, something that just doesn't happen (AFAIK) in North America.

The first time we went out to the Canadian Rockies I got a great picture of a bighorn standing by the road eating dandelions. I couldn't beleive I could get so close. Later had a nice pic of a younger sheep over a chasm, also amazingly close. Rockjy Mountain goats were much shyer and further away.

By anthrosciguy (not verified) on 25 Feb 2011 #permalink

I've read that pachycephalosaurs lived in mountains like bighorn sheep and I wonder what kind of support that idea has. Anyhow, sorry to be the guy that brought up dinosaurs, but you know someone had to.

I would love to see these animals someday. Or the stuffed and mounted corpse of a poacher of them, at least.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 25 Feb 2011 #permalink

in Tajikistan in 1995, hunters were able to kill argali for a fee of US$10,000-20,000

And in Mongolia in the 1990ies, it would cost US$25,000 to shoot a Gobi argali and US$30,000 to shoot an Altai argali. This information comes from George Schaller's Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe (1998) (a book which is recommended reading to anyone interested in the complex issues surrounding the conservation of argalis and other wild ungulates in Central Asia).

For those travelling by car in North America this coming summer, and who wish to see some wild sheep, including some pretty spectacular rams, pretty close and along the roadway, a few recommendations might include a section on I-70 in Colorado west of Denver near the Eisenhower Tunnel for Rocky Mountain Bighorn, as well as in Canada along the Alcan Highway, north of Haines Junction, that leads into British Columbia's Kluane National Park for Stone Sheep, and in Alaska on the Seward Highway along the Turnagain Arm from Anchorage to Girdwood for Dall Sheep.

RE: comments 3 and 4

I don't know if this might relate (or not) to European/Asian species, but interaction between wild and domestic sheep has been one the significant reasons for decline of North American wild sheep and remains a significant threat for remaining and reintroduced populations. Domestic sheep are often, apparently healthy, carriers of bacterial pneumonia (Pasteurella/Pasteurellosis) and wild sheep are very susceptible (high mortality and long-term recruitment depression).

This document ( has a good overview of the literature from pages 2-5.

Of note to Calli's question on what they might be thinking is this statement about transmission: "Having estrous domestic ewes in close proximity to bighorn sheep increases the likelihood of contact between the 2 species because bighorn rams are attracted to estrous domestic ewes"

An artist colleague of mine just sent me the link to this excellent post.

I specialize in painting Gobi argali, among other Mongolian subjects, having traveled there five times now (trip no. 6 coming up in August) and doing fieldwork at three locations that have them: Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve and Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve. The first and third are desert-steppe. The second is mountain-steppe. Study of that population is just getting under way.

Ikh Nartiin Chuluu is where Dr. Richard Reading (mentioned in the citations) has his research camp. I went there on my first trip in 2005 as an Earthwatch volunteer. I now work with him and S. Amgalaanbaatar, the Mongol scientist who runs the Argali Research Center, which is part of the Mongolian Academy of Sciende, by supporting a local herder women's crafts collective.

As a response to an above query: I also have photos of argali in amongst domestic sheep. Neither Dr. Reading or any of the other scientists I've spoken with have ever mentioned any mating between them, unlike with the Prezewalski's horse (tahki), which can mate with domestic horses and produce fertile offspring even though the former has 66 chromosomes and the latter 64. The hybrid has 65.

As it happens, I just did a blog post last Friday on argali, so FWIW:…

Anyone reading this who is interested in argali is welcome to contact me.


Przewalski. The first syllable is psheh-.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 09 Mar 2011 #permalink

Yup, you're right. Typing fast. Missed it when I re-read it. Thanks for the correction. See now that I managed to misspell "Science" too. Sigh. I actually can rite ok. Reely.

Thanks for the pronunciation, too. I had been told "zheh-"

By Susan Fox (not verified) on 11 Mar 2011 #permalink

I had been told "zheh-"

Well, yeah, except the p- in front of it devoices it.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 12 Mar 2011 #permalink