On the vast steppes of Central Asia, an endangered antelope is teetering on the brink.
This spring, a mysterious disease wiped out more than half of the species' remaining population on Earth, scientists recently announced at a meeting in Uzbekistan. More than 200,000 animals perished during the mass die-off in Kazakhstan, the bodies of adults and calves dotting the grasslands for miles.
Despite their comical appearance, saiga are unfamiliar to most. The goat-size critters sport a flexible, Gonzo-like proboscis that looks like a shortened elephant trunk. (Also see "5 Animals With Weird Noses.")
Julie Young, a research biologist at U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center who has studied saiga, says the animals are so poorly known, she used to keep several pictures in her wallet to explain to people what she was working on.
“Most people have just never heard of them,” she says.
A Vacuum On the Steppe
So what purpose could such an ungainly schnoz serve?
By dissecting and scanning saiga noses, a scientific team in 2004 identified large chambers inside the animal's proboscis that may help “clean” air before it’s inhaled into the lungs.
This would allow the animals to breathe more efficiently when traveling in great migrating herds, whose thundering hooves can turn the steppe into a dust storm.
There's also evidence that the the trunk aids in communication and choosing mates. As with male howler monkeys and koalas, loud nasal roars in male saiga are thought to advertise body size and help males woo females.
If roars can’t settle the score, the males use their long, ribbed horns to war with each other over the right to breed. Successful males boast harems of up to 50 females, each of which is likely to produce twins.
There’s also one other thing that makes the saiga’s proboscis interesting—the way the animals hold it close to the ground when they run. (Also see "Do Animals Blow Their Noses?")
“We used to joke that it looks like a vacuum cleaner going across the steppes,” says Young.
Though saiga antelope were once prevalent from the British Isles all the way to the Yukon in North America, their future appears grim.
Even before the die-off this spring, the species, Saiga tatarica, was considered critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Today, the global population is estimated at about 50,000 animals, down from 1,250,000 in the mid-1970s, according to IUCN.
Though an unknown disease wreaked havoc on saiga this spring, hunting remains a top threat, according to the group: The animals are prized both for their meat and their horns, which are used in Chinese traditional medicine to purportedly reduce fever and ward off evil spirits.
While conservation efforts have allowed the population to rebound in recent decades, rampant poaching of males has contributed to a “reproductive collapse." In other words, there simply aren’t enough males to go around. (See "For World's Oddest-Looking Antelope, Signs of a Comeback .")
Worse still, the world’s largest saiga antelope captive-breeding program lost all but four of its animals to an unidentified disease earlier this year. It’s unclear whether this was linked to the die-offs in the wild.
The only relatively good news, Young says, is that the Mongolian subspecies, Saiga tatarica mongolica, hasn't experienced any mass die-offs.
The Mongolian subspecies is also considered critically endangered, with just a few thousand animals remaining, so Young says it’s unlikely these animals would be able to survive a plague like the one that has hit their cousins.