You’re wandering across the plains of Mongolia, wondering where the heck you left your horse. Suddenly, the ground shakes! Just like the beginning of the stampede scene in the Lion King. You hear a distant thunder, as if caused by many hooves! Just like the stampede scene in the Lion King. You shift anxiously as the noise grows louder, wishing you’d paid more attention to the Disney classics. Suddenly the herd comes over the rise, and you laugh so hard you fall over and are immediately and tragically trampled to death.
Surprise! It’s the-
And it’s rude to laugh. (But boy, is it hard not to.)
The Saiga (sigh-guh) is a goat-sized antelope native to the Eurasian steppe. They’re found from the Carpathian Mountains to Mongolia. And they uh, have a bit of a nose situation going on, and that’s the understatement of the century! The Saiga’s mighty schnozz is its defining feature, and no other hooved animal on earth has such a robust snoot. The Saiga pities their pathetic little faces for it. (It’s an awful lot of nose to look down.)
So why this immense not-quite-trunk? Maybe they use it to make noise, or to intimidate rivals? Not so much, actually. Both males and females have the tremendous facetrumpet, though females do lack horns and a desire to kill. (But more on that later.) Obviously this big ol clown honker must have some purpose, or it wouldn’t exist. Or maybe God was just bored, who nose. (Har!) But I kid, (Pun!) this punderful snout actually does have a purpose!
And that purpose is to look ABSOLUTELY STUNNING.
As I mentioned, Saigas are herd animals. and at some point, Evolution decided to provide them with a semi-helpful wedgie. That monster snout helps to filter dust kicked up by their 50ish neighbors out of the air they breathe, as they stumpf semi-majestically across the plains. It also helps to warm the air they breathe in the cold months, which is an adaptation anyone who’s ever stepped out of their front door directly into a -10 hellzone is surely jealous of. (I’m not bitter! I’M NOT.)
And they migrate really far! Herds of these ridiculous little antelopes can cross thousands of miles, and travel up to 72 miles in a single day! They ford rivers, brave valleys, and scuttle inspiringly across the tundra like they think they’re in a Lifetime movie. Their goal is to reach their seasonal feeding grounds; they spend the winters in the south and the summers in the north. Like retirees, except without the tacky golf pants.
Saigas eat a wide variety of plants, including some that are toxic to other animals. Like goats, Saigas put all of their skill points into the ‘eat anything’ slot. And it seems to have paid off; they were once found across all of Europe and Asia, and even in paleolithic North America! (Though the end of the last ice age put a brutal stop to that.) Just imagine being a prehistoric hunter-gatherer and looking out your tent one day to see a moving sea of these ridiculous little muppet antelopes. I bet it was a fun time. (“GROK, YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT I’M LOOKING AT RIGHT NOW.”)
But I did promise I’d get back to the heart-full-of-murder thing, so I guess I’d better do that. Saigas are a lot like other ungulates in that their herds are mostly made up of females, with one attendant male who just kind of hangs out and get poached for his horns sometimes. At least, until breeding season. (DUN DUN DUUUN) Males spend the entire breeding season fighting each other for access to the ladies, which isn’t unusual for a hoofed mammal! But what IS unusual is the fatality rate- 90% of these fights end with one male just straight-up killing the other. I guess the Saiga ladies are just really into blood sport. (Maybe we can get them to just watch Game of Thrones instead like everyone else.)
But their conservation status is another story altogether. (It’s depressing how many species this is true for. welcome to the Anthropocene, I guess. The geological era where everything sucks.) Around two decades ago, more than a million Saiga wandered across the Eurasian Steppe. But unregulated hunting for food, trophies and the Saiga’s ‘medicinal’ horns decreased their numbers to less than 50,000 in just 10 years. And if that weren’t enough, bacterial infections have been taking huge chunks out of the remaining population: a mass die-off in 2015 killed half of them.
But there is good news: these goofy little hooved jerks are now enjoying governmental protection and conservation efforts to raise their numbers. There are still around 50,000 of them and with luck and maybe a little less murder, these goatish nostril maniacs will be thundering across the plains once more.
1. Navinder Singh, Wikimedia Commons
2. Belgianchocolate, Flickr
3. Igor Shpilenok, publicdomainfiles.com