The saiga is an ungulate animal that is a member of the antelope subfamily. This is the only species of antelope that lives in Europe. The female of this animal is called saiga, and the male is called saiga or margach. Initially, the population of the species was numerous, today these amazing animals are on the verge of extinction.
Origin of the species and description
Saigas are chordate mammals. Animals are representatives of the order of artiodactyls, the family of bovids, allocated to the genus and species of the saiga.
The saiga is a very ancient animal. It is reliably known that during the Pleistocene period they lived throughout the entire territory of modern Eurasia from the British Isles on the western side to Alaska on the eastern side. After the global glaciation, the territory of their residence was preserved only in the European steppes. Some zoologists claim that these representatives of the bovids grazed along with mammoths. Since then, the animals have not changed at all, they have retained their original appearance.
Video: Saiga antelope
In Russian, this name appeared from the Turkic speech. In international speech, it appeared thanks to the scientific works of the Austrian researcher and scientist Sigismund von Herberstein. In his writings, he described the lifestyle and characteristics of this animal. The very first mention of an animal called “saiga” is registered in his scientific work “Notes on Muscovy”, which the researcher wrote in 1549.
When forming his explanatory dictionary, Dahl indicated that it would be correct to name a female individual a saiga, while a male is called a saiga.
Appearance and Features
The saiga is a small antelope. The body length of an adult is 115 – 140 centimeters. The height of the animal at the withers is 65-80 centimeters. The body weight of one adult animal is 22-40 kilograms. All saigas have a short tail, the length of which does not exceed 13-15 centimeters. These animals have pronounced sexual dimorphism.
Males significantly outnumber females in weight and size. The head of males is decorated with horns that grow up to thirty centimeters in length. They are directed vertically upwards, have a convoluted shape. The horns are almost transparent or yellowish in color and are striated with transverse annular ridges.
Animals have an elongated body shape, and not very long, slender limbs.
The coat of animals has a sandy color with a reddish or brown tint. The abdomen has a lighter, almost white color. In winter, the fur of animals darkens, acquires a coffee, dark brown color. In the cold season, the saiga coat not only changes color, but also becomes much thicker, which makes it easy to endure strong winds and persistent frosts. Molting occurs twice a year – in spring and autumn.
The animal stands out among other species of antelope with a unique nose structure. Outwardly, it resembles a shortened trunk.
The nose of animals is long and very mobile. This structure of the nose allows it to perform a number of important and necessary functions. It serves to warm the air in the cold season and trap dust and the smallest pollution in the summer. In addition, this structure of the nose allows males to make low sounds to attract females during the mating season, as well as to demonstrate strength to rivals. The animal has short, wide ears, and expressive, dark eyes far apart.
Where does the saiga live?
As a habitat, these ungulates choose only flat terrain with low vegetation. Saigas live mainly in the steppes or semi-deserts. They try to avoid ravines, hills, or dense forests.
In former times, saigas were very common throughout modern Eurasia. Today they are on the verge of extinction, and their habitat has been significantly reduced.
Geographic regions of animal habitat:
- Astrakhan region of the Russian Federation;
- Republic of Kalmykia;
Saiga prefer the plains due to the fact that jumping is quite difficult for them. With the onset of winter and cold weather, they prefer to move to places with little snow, as high snowdrifts make it difficult to move. Saiga saigas also try to avoid being on sand dunes, since it is also problematic for them to move around in such an area, and even more so to get away from the pursuit of predators. Animals stay near the hills during the winter season, when snowstorms and strong winds are observed.
These representatives of ungulates have developed a peculiar type of movement – amble. In this way, they are able to reach a fairly high speed – up to 70 km/h. Saiga can live both on the plains and on the uplands. In Kazakhstan, animals live at an altitude of 150 to 650 meters above sea level. In Mongolia, their habitat is represented by pits near water bodies.
In the season of severe drought, when animals experience difficulties and it is difficult for them to find a source of food, they can enter the territory of agricultural land and eat corn, rye, and other growing on fields of culture. With the onset of winter, animals choose the area where it is easiest for them to find a source of food and try to stay close to water bodies.
What does the saiga eat?
These animals are artiodactyls, therefore, they are herbivores. Zoologists say that saigas eat a very large number of species of vegetation, more than a hundred in total. The diet and the list of plants that are included in the diet of an animal depend on the region of habitat, as well as the season.
For example, in Uzbekistan, the saiga diet includes about three dozen species of vegetation, in Kazakhstan, about five dozen species . Regardless of the area where animals live, the number of vegetation species that are suitable as a food source during one season does not exceed thirty.
What can be the food base of the saiga:
- steppe lichens;
- tulip foliage, etc.
During strong snowstorms and drifts, ungulates hide in thickets of bushes and remain there until the bad weather subsides. During this period, they often starve or eat coarse, dry types of vegetation – reeds, shrubs, tamarix, and other species. camphorism, prutnyak and lichens. In winter, the basis of the diet is wormwood, lichens, feather grass.
Animals are considered not picky about food, they can eat any kind of vegetation that is common in their habitat. The need for water is experienced mainly in winter, when they eat mainly dry species of plants and shrubs. In the warm season, when juicy greens predominate in the diet, the body’s need for fluid is replenished from the moisture that it contains.
Character and lifestyle features
Saigas are herd animals, they are not found alone in nature. They gather in numerous herds, the head of which is a strong, experienced leader. The number of individuals of one such herd can be from one to five to six dozen individuals. Herds tend to lead a nomadic lifestyle. They move around different regions in search of food, or to escape the weather. Most often they move to the desert with the onset of winter and cold weather, and return to the steppes with the first warm days.
With the onset of cold weather, the leaders of various groups of animals often enter into fights, which can often end in death. The nomadic way of life also affects the movement of populations. The pace of movement and its range are set by a strong leader. Not all individuals of the herd can correspond to it. Therefore, many animals do not reach their destination, dying on the way.
Animals are highly adaptable to environmental conditions. They are able to survive in regions with little food and water, and in such conditions are able to exist for quite a long time. In the process of movement, animals are able to move at high speed, sometimes reaching up to 80 km/h. When danger approaches, the whole herd takes flight. Sick and weakened animals lag behind the herd and most often die from predator attacks.
Animals are by nature excellent swimmers, thanks to which they are able to overcome small and medium-sized bodies of water without any problems. By nature, animals are endowed with excellent hearing, which allows them to distinguish extraneous, dangerous rustles at a distance of up to several kilometers. In addition to excellent hearing, animals have a keen sense of smell, which allows you to feel the change in weather conditions, the approach of rain or snow.
The life expectancy of animals is quite low, and directly depends on gender. Males in natural conditions live no more than four to five years, the life expectancy of females reaches 10-11 years.
Social structure and reproduction
By nature, saigas are polygamous animals. The mating season is seasonal and lasts from November to early January. This period depends on the region of residence. On the territory of Kazakhstan, the mating season lasts from March to April. The mating period of animals lasts from 10 to 25 days. Each sexually mature forms a harem for himself, beating off from five to ten females, which are guarded by males from the encroachments of foreign males.
The formed harem exists in a certain area, with an area of 30-80 square meters. During this period, males become aggressive, often fighting for the right to enter into marriage relations with one or another female. Such battles often end in severe injuries, death.
During sexual relations, males secrete a specific secret from the infraorbital and abdominal skin glands. Mating most often occurs at night, during the daytime, males most often rest and gain strength. It is during this period that males eat little, strength and body weight are lost. At this time, cases of saiga attacks on people have been recorded.
Females reach sexual maturity by the eighth month of life, males only after a year. Pregnancy lasts an average of five months. Females who are to give birth to cubs accumulate in one place, mainly on flat terrain with sparse, low vegetation. The body weight of a newborn cub is 3-3.5 kilograms.
During the first day, the babies lie almost motionless. After the birth of the babies, the mother goes in search of food and water, but several times a day she comes to visit her cub. Newborns grow and get stronger quite quickly, already on the sixth or seventh day they are able to follow their mother.
Natural enemies of saigas
Like any representatives ungulates, saigas often fall prey to predators living in saiga habitats.
Natural enemies of ungulates:
- stray dogs.
Predators often lie in wait for their prey when they gather in flocks for a watering hole. Zoologists say that when attacked at the most unexpected moment, a pack of wolves can destroy up to a quarter of the herd of ungulates. The greatest danger to the number of animals is man and his activities. In large numbers, saigas were exterminated by poachers who hunted for valuable fur, tasty and nutritious meat, as well as horns of an ungulate animal.
The horns of these animals are of great value and are widely used in the manufacture of alternative medicine in China. A powder is made from them, which is part of antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, and body-cleansing drugs. Also, Chinese doctors use this powder as a medicine for liver diseases, migraines, pathologies of the gastrointestinal tract.
In the Chinese market, huge sums of money are paid for such horns, the demand for saiga horns is great at all times, therefore poachers seek to replenish their pockets by killing these amazing animals.
Population and species status
To date, the animal is listed in the international, in the Russian Red Book with the status of a species that is on the verge of extinction. Researchers note a trend towards a sharp decrease in the population of these animals at the end of the last century.
At that moment, alternative medicine began to actively develop in China and the market began to offer big money for the horns of an animal, from which a healing powder was subsequently made. In addition, the skin of animals and their meat, which has excellent taste characteristics, were of great value. The number of poachers began to grow rapidly, and animals were mercilessly massacred.
At a time when the number of animals became alarmingly low, the authorities began to think about creating special national parks in which it would be possible to restore the number of these animals. However, the first such attempts were unsuccessful. Zoologists attribute this to the fact that optimal conditions for existence and reproduction were not created, and specialists for the restoration of the saiga population were not previously developed.
In order to protect animals from destruction, preserve and increase their numbers, they were listed in the international Red Book as a species on the verge of extinction. In addition, they were included in the List of animals classified as representatives of flora and fauna, hunting for which should be limited or prohibited.
The Department of Hunting of the Russian Federation is developing a set of legislative acts aimed at introducing criminal and administrative responsibility for the destruction of a rare species of animals, as well as the development of special programs aimed at maintaining and restoring the number of these animals.
Zoologists and researchers call for the creation of reserves and national parks in which it is necessary to create conditions as close as possible to the natural environment saiga habitat. Only in such an environment, with a sufficient amount of food, can the first results be obtained. Saiga is a very ancient representative of flora and fauna, which has retained its original appearance since the beginning of existence on Earth. Today, it is on the verge of complete extinction, and the task of a person is to correct their mistakes and prevent its complete destruction.