By: Heather Callaghan, Natural Blaze |
Central Kazakhstan — A certain type of endangered antelope has drastically died off in mass numbers, but the cause remains virtually unknown. Mass dying of the “Gonzo-faced” creatures reached a significant stage this past spring when tens of thousands of the antelope in Kazakhstan died in just a few days. This eerie extinction event, during their calving season, was preceded by a sudden die-off of 12,000 antelopes. In 2014, the country’s saiga hovered around 250,000, but now less than half of them remain.
This has researchers worried because saiga antelope are a crucial part of Eurasian ecosystems. Plant life does not easily decompose during harsh winters. Saiga breakdown grazing lands into nutrients and in turn, provide nutrients to their natural predators. By clearing Nature’s litter, they prevent forest fires. Unfortunately, it appears that their biggest current predator is a microscopic, normally harmless bacterium.
“When geologist Steffen Luther and his colleagues arrived in central Kazakhstan to monitor the calving of one herd of saigas, a critically endangered, steppe-dwelling antelope, veterinarians in the area had already reported dead animals on the ground.
‘But since there happened to be die-offs of limited extent during the last years, at first we were not really alarmed,’Zuther, the international coordinator of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, told Live Science.
But within four days, the entire herd — 60,000 saiga — had died. As veterinarians and conservationists tried to stem the die-off, they also got word of similar population crashes in other herds across Kazakhstan. By early June, the mass dying was over. [See Images of the Saiga Mass Die-Off]”
Researchers there suspect bacteria but are mystified as to why it would cause such devastation in a short amount of time. At first they suspected extra greenery leading to digestive problems but rethought that hypothesis when they noticed that females felled the most, followed by their young. The microbes they suspected might transfer through mother’s milk, Scientists scoured everything in their environment including ticks.
Live Science reports that researchers found toxins produced by Pasteurella and possibly Clostridia bacteria and noticed major internal bleeding. These bacteria are normal for the intestines of antelope and would only cause harm if they had compromised immune systems.
In 1988, there was a die-off of 400,000 saiga and similar answers were sought, but not met with much resolution. Zuther and others plan to keep searching for the cause of this strange, mass die-off.