Creature Feature: Saiga Antelope

The saiga antelope, also known as Mongolian saiga (Saiga tatarica), is a little-known species of antelope, recognizable by its distinctive facial features.

A saiga antelope, notable for its distinctive proboscis (nose) [Source]

While saiga antelope once inhabited Mongolia, the extant (i.e. current) populations of saiga antelope live in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and a small part of Russia. These antelope once ranged from France all the way through the Asian continent. However, over the last 15 years, the population of saiga antelope have diminished by 95%. The saiga’s prominent horns hold value in traditional medicinal practices, and illegal hunting has placed the saiga in the IUCN’s critically endangered category. Unsurprisingly, this huge population decrease has resulted in a large loss of genetic diversity and geographic range [1].

Saiga antelope horns, coveted for tradition medicine [Source]

However, all this background information has probably gone right over your head as you wait for the answer to the main question about saiga antelope: why the big nose? This critically endangered species has one of the oddest noses of any ungulate (or any animal, for that matter) I’ve ever seen. These antelope have evolved in a harsh climate. In the summer months, this large nose helps the saigas filter dust from the air when it is kicked up by the migrating herd [2]. In the cold winters, their long, furry nose warms the frigid air before it hits their lungs.

A female saiga [Source]

Additionally, the saiga’s long nose acts as a sound filter, allowing males to produce low frequency nasal calls that attract female saigas [2]. Saigas communicate using both oral and nasal vocalizations. Both vocalization types are individually identifiable to mothers and their calves, indicating a possible mechanism for mother-offspring individual identification within the large herds of saigas present at breeding grounds [3]. Saiga group sizes fluctuate throughout the year in number, ranging from 10 to thousands of individuals per group [4]. In spring, saigas congregate for the breeding and calving season in groups of a few thousand. After calving, saigas migrate to their summer location and split into small groups of around 10­–50 individuals. In the fall, saiga groups merge to prepare for a mass migration. Throughout the summer travel and fall migration, calves stay with their mothers. These mass migrations kick up loads of dusty terrain, and those large noses come in handy again!

Mother and calf saiga antelope [Source]

While the saiga antelope’s critically endangered status is cause for concern, many conservation biologists, behaviorists, and geneticists are working to help save the species. Conservationists are actively working to understand public perception of saigas in order to inform conservation and management decisions about this unique species [5]. Conservationists are also trying to understand exactly why saiga antelope populations declined so dramatically. By understanding how hunting and other pressures contributed to their population decline, researchers hope to prevent this unique species from going extinct.


Allison Lau is a PhD Candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group. She studies the communication of pair-bonding mammals including titi monkeys, gibbons, and coyotes. When she’s not actively working on bioacoustics, you can find her working on her latest children’s novel with her two cats and a litter of foster kittens.


References

[1] Campos, P. F., Kristensen, T., Orlando, L., Sher, A., Kholodova, M. V., Götherström, A., … & Gilbert, M. T. P. (2010). Ancient DNA sequences point to a large loss of mitochondrial genetic diversity in the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) since the Pleistocene. Molecular Ecology19(22), 4863-4875.

[2] Volodin, I. A., Sibiryakova, O. V., Kokshunova, L. E., Frey, R., & Volodina, E. V. (2014). Nasal and oral calls in mother and young trunk-nosed saiga antelopes, Saiga tataricaBioacoustics23(2), 79-98.

[3] Sibiryakova, O. V., Volodin, I. A., Frey, R., Zuther, S., Kisebaev, T. B., Salemgareev, A. R., & Volodina, E. V. (2017). Remarkable vocal identity in wild-living mother and neonate saiga antelopes: a specialization for breeding in huge aggregations?. The Science of Nature104(3), 1-11.

[4] Bekenov, A. B., Grachev, I. A., & Milner‐Gulland, E. J. (1998). The ecology and management of the saiga antelope in Kazakhstan. Mammal Review28(1), 1-52.

[5] Yang, T., Druică, E., Zhang, Z., Hu, Y., Cirella, G. T., & Xie, Y. (2022). Predictors of the Behavioral Intention to Participate in Saiga Antelope Conservation among Chinese Young Residents. Diversity14(5), 411.

[Edited by Meredith Lutz]

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