Argali, Ovis ammon

The argali (Ovis ammon), also known as the mountain sheep, is native to Central Asia. Its range includes Tibet, Altay, and Himalaya. Its range extends from Kazakhstan in the west, east to Shanxi Province in China. It also extends from Altai Mountains in the north, south to the Himalayas. It prefers a habitat in the highlands of these regions, at elevations between 980 and 19,000 feet. Its habitat type varies depending upon location. In areas like Kazakhstan, where it is often hunted, it can be found in forested areas, while in protected regions, it can be found in more open, sloping areas. There are currently nine recognized subspecies under the argali.

The argali can reach an average height between 2.9 and 4.5 feet with an average body length of up to 6.7 feet. There is a sexual dimorphism between males and females, with females occasionally weighing half the weight of males. Males can weigh up to 400 pounds, while females can weigh up to 220 pounds. The argali has the smallest tail on average when compared to other sheep or goat-antelope, reaching between 3.7 and 6.7 inches.

The coloring of the argali can vary in populations, depending on where each one is located. Populations found in Russia are typically lighter in color, while those in the Himalayas are typically dark. Colorations can vary between light yellow to dark brownish gray, and during the summer, the coat can be speckled with small dark spots. The tail, buttocks, and face are yellow-white in color, and males bare a white neck scruff that is darker than that of females. Males carry large, curved horns that can reach an average length of 6.2 feet and a weight of 51 pounds. These horns are used for competition. Females have horns that are much smaller, reaching an average length of only twenty inches.

Herds of argali can contain between 2 and 150 individuals, with females and males remaining separated until mating season. Most herds contain a large percentage of females, with smaller percentages of males and young. Males are typically not solitary, and can live in groups between three and thirty individuals, while female and young live in larger groups holding up to 92 individuals on average. Migrating groups of males have been recorded, and it is thought that migrations most commonly occur seasonally, or when severe conditions exist such as drought human poaching.

The breeding season for the argali occurs between the months of October and middle January, but this period may last longer in populations located in lower elevations. Rutting occurs during this period, where members of both sexes will dig lines in the ground with their horns. Both males and females will fight for dominance by clashing their horns as well. Rams are the most aggressive when fighting, and their clashing can be heard up to 2,600 feet away. Typically, older males are successful in holding dominance and will chase younger rams away when the ewes, or females, enter estrus. After smelling the ewe’s urine, in order to gauge her receptiveness, the ram will mate with the female after several tries. The ram can remain with the ewe it mated with for up to one or two months after the rutting season.

After a pregnancy of just over 160 days, one young is typically born, although twins do occur in certain subspecies and many females do not give birth at all. Lambs can weigh up to ten pounds at birth. The ewe will remain with her baby for the first night of its life, and both will begin moving back towards the herd the next day. Lambs will play together and can be seen leaping, and mothers may join in. The lambs will grow quickly, weighing nearly ten times as much as when they were born, and females can reach their adult weight at two years of age. Males grow much larger than females, in turn taking longer to reach their adult weight. The typical lifespan of the argali is between five and ten years, although wild individuals can live to be thirteen.

The argali consumes up to 42 pounds of vegetation a day. Its diet varies depending upon its location. Populations located at higher elevations consume forbs, cereals, and sedges, and populations found at lower elevations also consume sedges and cereals, although these are of a different type. Argali found between these elevations consume mesophyte grasses and bushes.

The argali found in north-central Kazakhstan consume flowers, leaves, fruits, and sprouts year round. These plant types are thought to be supplements in the other areas of its range. Water consumption is important for these animals, and argali in arid region will travel far to find water, although populations located in higher elevations do not typically have problems finding water. Saline soil is a common supplement for the argali when it is available.

Although it does occur in the same range as the Siberian ibex, the two species do not share habitat or diet preferences, so there is little competition between them. However, the argali encounters many other species with which it must compete for food, including the Tibetan antelope and wild yaks. Livestock occur within its range as well, and these domesticated sheep or yak can even pass diseases to the argali.

The main predator of the argali is the grey wolf, which will often hunt the sheep during harsh winter snows, in order to catch it better. However, it will hunt the argali year round and will not discriminate due to age. Other predators include leopards and snow leopards, where these big cats share a range with the argali and are not extinct. Other predators include the red fox, Eurasian lynx, domestic dogs, and golden eagles. Ewes will try to protect their young against small predators, but if attacked by a larger or flying predator, both the ewe and the lamb will flee.

Because of habitat loss and hunting, the argali is considered threatened or endangered in its range. There is a great appeal for hunters to kill this species because they are the largest species of sheep, and are prized for trophies. It is also hunted for use in traditional Chinese medical practices, and this makes it difficult to contain the poaching. Populations that were located in southern Siberia, northeastern China, and areas in Mongolia have gone extinct, and because of this, predators like the grey wolf and snow leopard have also dwindled in number. The argali appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Near Threatened”.

Image Caption: Argali, Ovis ammon. Credit: F. A. Brockhaus/Wikipedia