Most of the time I don’t find antelopes particularly exciting. They are beautiful, no doubt about that, but most of them are pretty standard: hooves, nice coats, and some horns. But it turns out I haven’t been all that fair to antelopes. There are definitely some weird ones out there. Probably one of the strangest I’ve seen is the saiga antelope, another one of the animals I got to see at the Field Museum.

Today, saigas are found in three small areas in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia. They are suited to the steppes of these areas, living in flat, arid regions. Saigas generally travel long distances in search of food, and though they are quite hardy animals they avoid steep or rocky areas.

They are kind of cute, in an ugly sort of way.  Image credit: Darwin Initiative
They are kind of cute, in an ugly sort of way.
Image credit: Darwin Initiative

Saigas are not overly large animals, standing at less than a meter high at the shoulder. Males possess horns while females do not. The horns are not excessively ornate, the most notable thing about them being the ringed ridged that cover them. Saiga antelopes range in colour from yellow-red to dull gray, depending on the animal and season.

The most obvious feature of saigas is their giant, funny-looking nose. It is big, floppy, and looks entirely out of place on an otherwise reasonable looking antelope. The nose serves two purposes, reflecting the extreme climate that saigas must endure. Summer on the plains means dust, which can be extremely detrimental to animals that migrate in large groups. So that funny nose helps filter out all the dust that hundred of hooves kick up. In the winter, saigas must contend with very cold temperatures. Their noses heat up air before it is breathed into the lungs. So despite how weird it looks, it’s actually a pretty practical appendage.

baby-saiga-antelope-calf
A young saiga and its mother. Image source: http://www.babyanimalzoo.com/saiga-antelopes-look-like-adorable-star-wars-characters

Reproduction in saigas is a violent affair, at least for males. Males gather harems of 5-10 females, and protect them at any cost. Fights between males often occur, and these can end in serious injury or death. Male saigas are so vigilant about protecting their harem that they do not graze during the breeding season. This, in addition to the energy they spend fighting off competing males, leaves male saigas so weak at the end of the breeding season that mortality among males can be as high as 80 or 90%.

Perhaps in part because of their aggressive breeding strategy, but mainly due to human interference, saigas are critically endangered. Their population has fluctuated drastically over the past 100 years, due to hunting and disease outbreaks. Hopefully with continued conservation efforts we can keep these funny guys around for a while.

Cover image source: http://www.cms.int/en/news/almost-5000-saiga-antelope-horns-confiscated-kazakhstan

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