Mouflon is one of the representatives of sheep, which is distinguished by its small size. It is widely distributed in Europe, Asia and even on the Mediterranean islands. It is the mouflons that are the progenitors of ordinary domestic sheep, since this type of sheep goes back to ancient times. Mouflons have some differences from the rest of the genus of sheep, and also differ within the species depending on the habitat.
Origin of the species and description
Mouflon is an animal of the ram family, is ruminant artiodactyls. Mouflons are the closest relatives of wild sheep. All animals from the genus of sheep have a number of distinctive features that are found in most representatives.
- height at the withers up to 65 cm, in females and up to 125 cm in males;
- they never (or rarely in some species) change their coat, but the color varies from light to almost black;
- males often wear a mane around their neck, and the older the ram, the thicker the mane;
- rams are often confused with goats, but the distinguishing features are the absence of a beard on the muzzle and curved horns (goats have straight horns);
- rams live for about 10-12 years;
- rams have spiral horns, and the older the male, the longer the horns and the more they curl.
An interesting fact: Sometimes the horns of old rams reach such a length that they begin to dig into their skull with sharp ends, growing into it. Some individuals die because of their own horns.
The weight of sheep varies – it can be medium-sized individuals up to 20 kg, and giants of 200 kg. There are many species in the genus, each of which has a certain number of chromosomes. Despite the difference in numbers, individuals of different species can interbreed with each other. Geneticists used this opportunity to breed the highest quality, most efficient offspring of domestic sheep, which are rich in wool, meat and docile character.
All rams are diurnal animals, which is typical of herbivores in general, although at night they may descend into the lowlands to graze on the grass. Females with cubs form harems owned by one dominant male. But males live in a separate group in which there is a strict hierarchy. It is established by the length of the horns (whoever has longer horns is stronger) or with the help of contractions. Males show their strength in horn fights; sometimes such battles reach the death of opponents.
Most species of sheep prefer to live in mountainous areas: their legs are adapted for moving over stones and boulders, and there are much fewer predators there. But there are types of sheep that live in deserts and steppes.
Appearance and features
Mouflons are strong in constitution animals up to 70 cm high at the withers. They have a short, stiff coat of brown, dark brown or almost black color. In winter, wool darkens, warms; in summer, the shade in females can be close to red. Sometimes on the sides of males, especially during the molting period, white tan marks of thick soft wool appear. Legs, belly, hindquarters, nose and sometimes neck are white, light gray or light tan. The males have a small mane on the inside of the neck, which extends all the way to the chest and sometimes reaches the length of the knees.
In length, a large ram reaches about 1.25 meters, of which 10 cm is its tail. Also, males have large spreading horns that curl into rings. The length of such horns is on average 65 cm, but they grow throughout life and can reach 80 cm. The horns twist with sharp ends inward, they are dotted with transverse stripes that reduce their weight and make the horns more durable. Females lack horns or have very small horns – they do not need to build a hierarchy in the herd.
Fun fact: The horns of some mouflons form the golden ratio.
Mouflons come in two subspecies, but they do not fundamentally differ from each other. For example, the European mouflon is smaller in size than its relative, the Transcaucasian mouflon. If the growth of a European is about 70 cm at the withers, then the Transcaucasian can reach 90 cm. The color of the second is usually a little darker, since the coat is thicker and denser due to colder living conditions. In an earlier classification, more subspecies of mouflon are distinguished, but they are all offshoots from these two varieties that live in different places.
The skull of a male mouflon sometimes reaches 300 cm in length, in females on average 250 cm. Mouflons are one of the few types of rams that regularly thoroughly change their coat, warming up for winter and shedding their undercoat by spring. Lambs are born light in color, but with a strong constitution, so on the very first day they can run nimbly, and later climb sheer stones and rocks on a par with their mother.
Where does the mouflon live?
The two species of mouflon live in different places, but their habitat is a rocky landscape.
The European mouflon was previously an object of active hunting, so today, in addition to nature reserves, it can be found in the following places:
- Corsica Island. This is a comfortable living area for sheep, since the island is covered with gentle high mountains, has a fairly vast territory of forests and plains. Sheep can be found in the central part of the island;
- Sardinia; dry climate is combined with mild winters. Sheep live throughout the island, but mostly on the plains;
- artificial resettlement was carried out in the southern part of Europe.
This kind of mouflon prefers mountainous terrain, intersected with flat territories – for the winter, sheep go to the rocks, and in summer they go down to graze on the plain. Herds of European mouflons can reach a hundred heads, but all of them are females. Males join the herd only in spring and summer, during the rutting season, when they arrange tournament fights for the right to mate.
Asian (or Transcaucasian) mouflon can be found in the following places:
- Mediterranean islands. Sheep were originally brought here by settlers as food during land development, but some individuals were able to breed and adapt to the hot climate;
- North-West India.
Interesting fact: In 2018, the Asian mouflon was discovered on the Ustyurut plateau in Kazakhstan. This is a desert area in a small hill, but the sheep have successfully adapted to life in this place.
Now you know where the wild mouflon sheep lives. Let's see what it eats.
What does the mouflon eat?
The mountainous terrain, which is predominantly inhabited by Asian mouflons, is not rich in vegetation. Sheep learned to dig up the roots of plants and look for food on the steep cliffs. Depending on the availability of drinking water and food, mouflons can migrate from place to place.
The main part of the diet of mouflons is:
- green grass;
- dry branches;
- plant fruits, shoots;
- leaves fruit trees.
In summer, mouflons eat a lot, because they need to gain weight before winter, which will be more difficult to get food. The stomach of sheep is able to digest hard plant species, which is especially useful in winter. In winter, they noticeably lose weight; some males, who occupy the lowest rungs in the hierarchy, do not survive the winter due to lack of food.
Sometimes sheep get to agricultural fields, where they feed on wheat and other cereal crops. They quickly gain weight on them, but in a short time a herd of sheep can cause serious damage to the crop. They cause similar damage to young shoots that appear on the plains in spring. Sheep, descending from the mountains, eat even young trees and shrubs, digging up their roots.
Mouflons rarely need water, because they are able to drink even very salty water – their body processes salt perfectly. Therefore, they often settle in places where predators cannot live comfortably due to lack of water.
Character and lifestyle features
Mouflons, like other types of sheep, live in herds of up to a hundred heads. The herd consists of females and lambs. There is no hierarchy in this herd, lambs are brought up not only by their mother, but also by other sheep. Males live separately from females in a small herd.
Interesting fact: In Transcaucasia, a male ram is called a “mufron”, and a female is called a “mufr”.
The hierarchy of the herd of males is different from the herd of females: there is an alpha who keeps the rest of the rams in submission. After the alpha, there are several rams that occupy the next step of dominance – and so on up to the omega group. As a rule, these are young rams or wounded and sick individuals, as well as rams that have lost their horns for some reason.
Horns are a sign of social status among rams. Even an old ram with spreading horns will have a high social status in the herd. Sheep arrange fights for superiority during the rut, when it is determined who has the right to mate with the female. The strongest ram will impregnate the largest number of sheep, while the weakest ram will not have the right to mate at all.
By themselves, sheep are calm and shy animals, which is typical for herbivores. In winter, when faced with danger, even strong males will prefer to flee, only in a forced situation, engaging in battle with an opponent. In winter, these animals are weaker due to lack of food, so they hide in mountainous areas in order to encounter predators less often.
In spring and summer, male rams become aggressive, it is dangerous to approach them. The period of greatest aggression falls on the rut, when males fight for the right to mate. Females always remain shy, but if danger threatens her lamb, she is able to repulse the enemy. Male mouflons do not protect the herd in any way; due to the lack of a single leader, sheep wander spontaneously, moving after drinking water and food.
Social structure and reproduction
During the rutting season, a herd of mouflon males meets with a herd of females on flat terrain. There, males begin tournaments for the right to mate with females. Tournaments are fights in which two males face each other with horns. The structure of their skull allows them to withstand severe blows without harm to the nervous system and brain. Sometimes such fights are deplorable for weaker males, as they can be seriously injured or even die. It also often happens that mouflons are linked by horns and cannot disperse.
The rut starts at different times depending on the habitat of the mouflon – it can be March-April or even December, if the animal does not live in a cold area. Females are divided into small herds of 10-15 individuals, to which 4-6 males come. Before colliding with horns, males diverge up to 20 meters and collide with each other at great speed. Most often, it is not the strong that wins, but the hardy one, because such fights exhaust the animals.
Females reach sexual maturity at one and a half years, and males at three to four years. Even males that have not received the status of the strongest and most enduring have a chance to mate, since after the “tournaments” the rams are not expelled from the herd. The pregnancy of a sheep lasts about five months, but the male does not take any part in the guardianship of the female or in caring for the offspring – the rams do not create polygamous unions.
The female brings one or two lambs, which are able to get up in the first two hours of life on your feet. For the first four weeks, the lamb feeds on mother's milk, but then it can eat soft plant cultures. At the age of three, male rams leave the herd of females and take their place in the hierarchy of the herd of males.
At first, the young ram remains among the omegas, occupying the lowest place in the hierarchy. But he can enter into a fight with older rams in order to take their place and climb a few steps up. On average, in the wild, sheep live for about eight years, but in captivity, life expectancy can reach 10-15 years.
Natural enemies of mouflons
Depending on the habitat, mouflons have different enemies.
Asian mouflons may encounter:
- cheetahs (in the southernmost parts of Turkmenistan);
- transcaucasian tigers;
- foxes (they threaten lambs);
- brown bear.
As you can see, many of the predators are felids that are able to climb rocks and get to sheep in the most protected places.
The European mouflon's enemies are:
- Sardinian lynx;
- Sardinian dholis (dogs);
- very rarely rams may encounter wolves.
Mouflons in the regions of Europe are more protected from predators, since hunting is made difficult by the mountainous landscape where sheep live.
Large birds of prey that drag off newborn lambs are also a threat, namely:
- black vulture;
- steppe eagle;
- golden eagle;
- some varieties of kites.
Mouflons are not able to fight back predators. Only during the rut period, males that acquire aggressiveness can attack in response to predators that are near the herd. Females do not protect the cubs, and in case of danger, the herds prefer to run away from the attacker. Such protective helplessness is balanced by the record short gestation period among all ram species, as well as by the high fecundity of mouflons – rams are characterized by one cub, and mouflons can bring two or less often three.
Population and view status
In the 20th century, mouflons were actively hunted, because of which the European subspecies was on the verge of extinction. To restore the population, some individuals were distributed throughout the southern parts of Europe, and due to the lack of natural enemies, the sheep population was restored. Moufflon gives strong skin and tasty meat, so they are still hunted today.
Due to the possibility of interspecific crossing, these sheep are also valued as pets. It is difficult to fully domesticate mouflons, but it is possible to cross them with a domestic sheep. For example, mouflons were used to breed mountain merino – a special breed of domestic sheep that can graze in the fields all year round.
The Asian mouflon has never been on the verge of extinction, since it has no commercial value. It is an object of sport hunting, its horns are sold as inexpensive trophies. No healing or nutritional properties are attributed to the meat of the Asian mouflon. Mouflons are kept in captivity, and in enclosures their life expectancy increases to 15-17 years. Animals easily adapt to any conditions of detention and quickly gain weight on feed, but they cannot get used to humans.
Mouflon played an important role in human life, because the mention of their ancestors was found on wall paintings as early as 3 thousand years ago. BC They have always given people a strong skin and nutritious meat. By crossing these sheep with other species, people were able to breed new breeds of domestic sheep, which are distinguished by high endurance, tasty meat and rich hair.