Wild sheep, Mountain sheep
The Argali is the biggest species of the wild sheep. Typically, an argali has a light brown coat and white legs, with a white rump patch. Both sexes have horns, but those of males are much bigger and more impressive, being as much as 13 percent of their body mass. A male also has a ring of white hair around its neck and a distinctive crest along the back, adding to its impressive appearance.
Argalis inhabit central Asia, ranging in the west from central Kazakhstan to the Shanxi Province in China in the east and from the Altai Mountains in the north to the Himalayas in the south. They are found on steep slopes at high elevations above 1000 m. The adult males choose the best vegetative habitats, which are more exposed than those chosen by young rams and females. During summer, as food becomes available, all argali move to higher elevations.
Habits and lifestyle
Argalis are grazers and are active during the day. They are herding animals, usually found in groups numbering 2 to 100 animals. The herds are segregated by gender except during the mating season. Argalis are very social animals and act in a calm and non-aggressive manner towards other argalis. Members of a herd follow one another, and individuals often seek contact with each other. Argali sheep rarely use their horns in defense against predators. They use avoidance and speedy flight instead, as their primary strategies to avoid the threat of predators. When scared, a solitary argali may stay motionless until the threat has gone, very different behavior when in the herd, when an alarm will make them jump and run away.
drift, drove, flock, fold, herd, mob, trip
Diet and nutrition
Argali sheep are herbivorous, eating grasses, herbs, and sedges.
Argali are polygynandrous; this means that both males and females mate with multiple partners. A dominant male mates with many females and will herd his harem during the rut. Female argalis will mate with many males if there is the opportunity, which may arise when dominance among the males changes or if a female leaves to join another herd. Mating takes place in the fall and early winter. The gestation period is 150 to 180 days. A female gives birth to one, sometimes two lambs. The females separate from their herds to give birth, remaining separated for several days. During this period, the lamb lies motionless while its mother grazes. A lamb is weaned at about four months old and usually joins a social group with other lambs. Females reach sexual maturity at 2 years old and males by the age of 5.
This species is threatened throughout its range but some of the subspecies are much worse off than others. Perhaps the main threats to their survival are grazing competition and displacement by domestic sheep as well as possible disease transmission. The other threats to argali are habitat loss and over-hunting. They are killed for their meat and magnificent horns, which are traditionally valued by local hunters.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of argalis is about 80,000-90,000 individuals. There are estimates for this species in these regions: China - 23,298 and 31,910 individuals; India- around 200 individuals; Kazakhstan – 13, 500 individuals; Kyrgyzstan - 15,900 argalis; Mongolia - 13,000-15,000 argalis; Russia – around 290 argalis; Tajikistan - 13,000-14,000 argalis; Uzbekistan - 1,800 argalis. Overall this species' numbers are decreasing today and it is classified as near threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List.
Argali sheep have a role to play in plant succession, as their feeding habits enable grasses to flourish rather than sedges. They are a very important item of prey for the endangered snow leopard.
Fun facts for kids
- Argalis communicate by hissing through their nostrils or grunting. Communication is important between mothers and young and it is based on oral, visual, and scent confirmations.
- Most sheep's milk produced around the world is made into cheese, including feta, ricotta, pecorino, Roquefort and Romano.
- Argali rams stand up on their back legs to slam their horns into one another to compete for mating rights, and they make so much noise they can be heard a kilometer away.
- Argalis grow several layers of fur so they can survive Mongolia's harsh mountain winters: long and hollow insulating fur on top of their usual summer fur over the top of dense, short fuzz. From mid-spring until late summer, they only have the middle layer.
- Argali milk has a fat content of 6%, the same as yak milk, so that the lambs can stay warm.
- Argalis get nutrients by eating salty dirt, which they find inside caves on mountains.
- The first European who described argalis was William of Rubruck in 1253, a monk who had been sent to Mongolia, who described them as having the bodies of bears with the horns of rams. Europeans did not believe that a sheep bigger than a cow existed, until in 1838 when John Wood sent the Royal Society in England some horns from Afghanistan.