Mountain sheep or argali, sometimes argali, kachkar, arkar – a wild and very graceful artiodactyl animal from the bovid family, living in the highlands of Central Asia (Himalayas, Tibet, Altai). This is the largest sheep in the world. Experts did not agree on the number of sheep species, many taxonomists define 7 species. The term “mountain sheep” itself is used both in relation to the whole species, and to one species – argali.
Origin of the species and description
In Latin, Ovis ammon is an artiodactyl mammal belonging to the bovid family. The name “argali” — is a Mongolian word meaning “wild sheep”. The Latin name of the species ammon is the name of the god Amon. According to the myth of Ovid, the celestials of Olympus, out of fear of Typhon, reincarnated into various animals. Amon took the form of a ram.
Currently, 9 subspecies are recognized:
- Altai mountain sheep;
- Tibetan ;
- Northern Chinese;
- Kyzylkum mountain sheep.
Some experts have classified the mouflon as Ovis Ammon Musimon, but DNA testing has not confirmed this. Several subspecies of mountain sheep have been genetically tested for DNA, resulting in the discovery of new subspecies, and some subspecies have been grouped into one subspecies. Over the past two hundred years, the number of all subspecies of mountain sheep has declined.
Video: Mountain sheep
It should be noted that the decline in the number of these sheep poses a threat to the populations of predators that prey on them. They also play an important role in the succession of some plants because their habit of eating sedge allows grasses to thrive.
Appearance and Features
Mountain Sheep — the largest sheep in the world, its weight ranges from 60 to 185 kg. Shoulder height from 90 to 125 cm. Horns in males are a characteristic feature of animals. They have the shape of a corkscrew with rounded fighting edges. Females have smaller horns. The horns of the male can be up to 190 cm long. They use their horns to fight each other. Females also have horns, but they are much smaller, usually less than 50 cm in total length. Females weigh half as much as males. Sheep can weigh from 43.2 to 100 kg, and rams — from 97 to 328 kg.
Interesting fact: The Pamir mountain sheep, also called the Marco Polo sheep, since it was first described by this traveler, the largest subspecies over 180 cm long without a tail . This mountain sheep has the relatively shortest tail of any wild goat-antelope or sheep, with a tail length of 9.5-17 cm.
Coloration varies with each animal, ranging from light yellow to reddish brown to dark grey-brown. A dark stripe runs transversely along the belly, separating the dark brown top half from the pale hair below.
Mountain sheep from the Himalayas are usually relatively dark, while the Russian subspecies are much lighter. In summer, the coat is often lightly spotted. The back is darker than the sides, which gradually lighten. The face, tail and buttocks are yellowish white. Males are darker than females and have a whitish neck collar and dorsal crest. Shedding occurs twice a year, summer hairs are darker, and winter hairs — longer.
Where does the mountain sheep live?
Argali occupy the same areas throughout their lives. They are found on uplands and steep slopes above 1000 m. In the summer, when food becomes available, the animals move closer to the tops of the mountains.
Mountain sheep are found in such countries:
- Mongolia. Found throughout eastern Mongolia, in areas with rolling hills, mountains, rocky outcropping canyons and plateaus;
- Uzbekistan. The species was previously distributed over a vast territory of the country. Today, the range of surviving animals is limited to the mountains of Nuratau, a protected area north of Samarkand. A small population remains in the west of the Aktau and Tamdytau mountain ranges;
- Tajikistan. The mountain sheep is present in the eastern part, from the border with Xinjiang, China in the west, to Langar in the south and Lake Sarez in the north;
- Russia. Argali were previously found in the Trans-Baikal, Kurai, South Chuya ranges, and besides this, on the Ukok plateau. Recently, they have been recorded only in the republics of Tyva and Altai;
- Pakistan. They live only in the Khunjerab National Park and its environs, including the Khunerab and Mintaka passes;
- Nepal. They live in the Damodar Kunda region, bordering Tibet. May also be preserved in the Dolpo region;
- Kyrgyzstan. Present along the eastern part of the country towards the border with China, from Kazakhstan in the north to Tajikistan in the south, and along sections of the eastern Tien Shan towards the Uzbek border;
- Kazakhstan. Observed to the north of Lake Balkash, in the north-eastern part of the country. Small populations are present in the Kara-Tau mountains;
- India. They are located on the eastern plateau of Ladakh, in the nearby Spiti region, and separately in northern Sikkim, adjacent to Tibet;
- China. Distributed in most of the mountain ranges of Xinjiang, including the Altai Shan, Arjin Shan, Kara-Kunlun Shan, Tien Shan, Pamir and related areas;
- Afghanistan. The western zone of the Greater Pamir, a significant part of the Lesser Pamir, and also found in the Vakhdjir valley.
The landscape of Central Asia is vast and mostly open. The mountains have been eroded and huge sloping hills have been preserved, providing a wide range of visibility for animals.
Now you know where the mountain sheep live. Let's see what the argali eat.
What does the mountain sheep eat?
Argali are herbivores and feed on grasses, greenery and sedge. Females and young rams feed in highlands with degraded food quality. They occupy spaces free from trees, but with plenty of food. These feeding sites provide protection from predators. Adult males, which are larger than females and juveniles, feed in lower areas with higher food quality, while female juveniles occupy higher areas where food supplies are poorer.
Mountain sheep have adapted to survive in the dry, windy and extreme climate of their high mountain home. Adult argali eat 16–19 kg of food per day. The vegetation favored by the species varies by elevation and area. In higher elevated areas, they predominantly eat grass and sedge. In mid-level habitats, they feed more regularly on mesophyte shrubs and grasses. In the lower ridges and spurs of the deserts, grasses and sedges again predominate, but of different species than in the highlands.
In Kazakhstan, sprouts, leaves, fruits, flowers are important for the diet of mountain sheep throughout the year, while in the rest of the range, they become a rare food supplement. Argali need water, which is not a problem for sheep living at high altitudes, where snow melts regularly and there are small water streams. In drier areas, they may travel long distances in search of water. Mountain sheep also readily consume saline soils.
Character and lifestyle features
Argali are herding animals and are usually found in groups of 2 to 100 animals. Herds are segregated by sex except during the breeding season. Most populations show a large number of adults, making up more than half of the population, with only 20% of adult males and another 20% of young argali.
Some male mountain sheep roam alone, but most are found in small herds. Females with children live in large groups, usually up to 92 individuals, with the exception of herds of up to 200 animals.
Interesting fact: They are very calm, not aggressive towards other species, and social animals. Members of the herd will follow each other, and will often seek contact with other rams.
Herds sometimes migrate, especially with males. Most migration is due to seasonal reductions in food sources, although oversupply of biting insects, severe drought or fires, poaching, and large numbers of livestock can also cause movements.
Mountain sheep tend to climb a large height. Horns are a prominent feature in males. During the rut, males collide head-on with each other, but are rarely seriously injured. Although such fights probably give them a terrible headache!
Social Structure and Reproduction
Rutting can occur from October to mid-January, generally longer at lower altitudes. Mating is polygamous. Battle of a pair of mature males — serious business. Rams slam into each other with their horns while their front legs are in the air, exerting enough force to be heard up to 800 m away.
Fun fact: Females reach sexual maturity at the age of 2 years, and men — at 5. This distinction makes sense because males must grow much larger than females before they can breed.
Stronger males (over six years old), the largest in the herd, become dominant, and young males are driven away for the duration of estrus females. Once dominance is established, the male approaches the female and forcibly climbs onto her. Mating begins about two to three weeks after the start of the rut. Males may remain in the company of females for up to two months after the completion of the rutting period.
The gestation period lasts a little over 165 days. Childbirth occurs at the end of March or April. Most subspecies give birth to one lamb, although for some varieties twins are not uncommon, and cases of the simultaneous birth of as many as five cubs are recorded. At birth, lambs weigh 2.7–4.6 kg. The newborn lamb and mother sheep stay for some time where the birth took place, and the next day they walk together.
Weight gain occurs fairly quickly, and by their first birthday, lambs weigh 10 times their weight at birth. Females generally reach their maximum weight by two years, but males continue to grow for another two years. Milk teeth develop at about three months of age, with a full set of teeth by six months. By that time, the lambs begin to graze, but the mother sheep continue to feed them with milk. Most mountain sheep live between five and 10 years.
Natural enemies of mountain sheep
The safety strategy of mountain sheep is in numbers. Adult males are larger and faster than females and do not feel much need to avoid predators. Therefore, they choose lower habitats than those chosen by females and young mountain sheep. They rarely use their horns to protect themselves from predators. The main advantage that argali use when attacked by predators is a quick flight. When frightened, a lone sheep may remain motionless until the threat is gone. This is very different from the behavior of these sheep in the herd, when danger makes them run and jump.
Male mountain sheep, due to their large size, do not jump well and usually do not use jumps to escape, although small females and young animals actively use this technique. Powerful long legs help mountain sheep to move through all types of terrain. They live in places inaccessible to predators, for example, high on hills or on steep embankments with good observation platforms.
The following predators hunt mountain sheep:
- grey wolves ( C. lupus);
- irbises (P. uncia);
- leopards (P. pardus);
- snow leopards (U. uncia);
- cheetahs (A. jubatus).
Small mountain sheep fall prey to coyotes and large birds such as the eagle and golden eagle. In addition, mountain sheep are hunted by people who actively kill artiodactyls for the extraction of expensive horns, meat and skins. Among animals, wolves occupy the first place in causing damage to mountain sheep, which often use harsh winter conditions (for example, deep snow) to catch mountain sheep. To avoid predation, animals in a herd move together and remain in the group.
Population and species status
General the number of individuals and the range of the species have decreased. The declining numbers of mountain goats pose a threat to the populations of their predators, such as snow leopards, which are highly dependent on the stability of these sheep populations.
Ibex populations by country:
- Afghanistan. 624 mountain sheep (87% of which were found in the Lesser Pamir. The total number is estimated to be 1000 individuals. Also 120-210 individual argali were observed in the western segment of the Greater Pamir;
- China. Some experts estimate the total number of argali in China it ranges from 23,285 to 31,920 Although other researchers give a much lower figure All calculations are based on density estimates and none can claim to be accurate;
- India. Mountain sheep are very rare in Sikkim and only occasionally move to the Spiti area. 127 individuals are in the area of the reserve and a little over 200 argali in Ladakh;
- Kazakhstan. Estimates are between 8,000 and 10,000 in the northeastern part of the country, 250 in the Kara-Tau mountains, and an unknown number in the Tien Shan;
- Kyrgyzstan. There are 565 individuals in the western part of the range and 6,000 mountain sheep in the north-eastern part of Kyrgyzstan. Government studies have estimated the number at approximately 15,900;
- Mongolia. According to a 2001 study by the Academy of Sciences, approximately 10,000 — 12,000 mountain sheep lived in the Gobi region in Mongolia and 3,000 — 5000 in other parts of the country;
- Nepal. The population is small, no precise estimates have been made;
- Pakistan. The number of animals in the country remains unknown, but probably less than 100 individuals;
- Russia. In the Altai Mountains in southern Russia, there are 450-700 individuals distributed over numerous subpopulations, none of which exceeds 50 animals. Also 80-85 mountain sheep within the Altai Reserve, 150-160 in the upper reaches of the rivers of the Sailugemsky Range, and 40-45 individuals along the slopes of the Chikhachev Range in the Tuva Republic;
- Tajikistan. The total number in Tajikistan is estimated at 13,000-14,000, with the highest density of individuals per km² near the border with China;
- Uzbekistan. Up to 1800 individuals have survived, of which 90% are found on the Karatau Range.
Mountain Sheep Conservation
Argali are endangered throughout their range, mainly due to habitat loss from overgrazing by domestic sheep and hunting. As the world's largest ram, it is a coveted trophy among hunters. They are shot for their meat, horns, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, and skins. Poaching continues to be a major (and difficult to manage) problem. Mountain sheep have been exterminated in northeastern China, southern Siberia and parts of Mongolia.
Interesting fact: Mountain sheep are protected worldwide by conservation organizations and are listed as vulnerable species on the international Red Book. Also listed in the Red Book of Russia.
Mountain sheep are also included in Appendix II of CITES, with the exception of subspecies O. a. nigrimontana and O. a. hodgsonii, which are included in Appendix I. To preserve the species, reserves are created where hunting for them is completely prohibited. Mountain sheep tolerate captivity well and even produce offspring. The transmission of diseases from livestock is an important factor influencing population size. These threats appear to vary little among different groups, even if habitats differ.