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'The possession of Siberia's natural wealth has become vital in determining Russia’s position in the world'

Meet Siberia's new snow sheep, a 'super-climber' with a taste for eating coal

By 0 and 0 and 0
17 February 2017


Young males of Kodar snow sheep in summer colors pictured in June 2016. Picture: Dmitry Medvedev

The shy and elusive wild snow sheep live on the Kodar ridge in the TransBaikal region and while it was first sighted in 1994, it is only now that genetic evidence has established that it is, indeed, a distinct and previously unknown subspecies.

Scientists believe that it is 'relict' herd, related to extinct sheep that grazed in mountains close to Lake Baikal thousands of years ago. 

With giant horns, it is an 'outstanding climber' - more adept over mountain terrain than the ibex. Amazingly, it chews on outcrops of coal, apparently not only as a 'mineral lick' but as part of the diet. 

'Kodar is laced with the veins of coal and in many places there are outcrops,' said biologist Dr Dmitry Medvedev, who first spotted the sheep 23 years ago. We are sure that the sheep literarily chew the coal.

Kodar ridge

Kodar ridge

Kodar ringe - the places where live Kodar snow sheep. Pictures: Fund 'Snow Leopard', Dmitry Medvedev

'When we carried out winter surveys, in strong cold periods we can hear a specific crunching sound - the sheep eat the coal. We even suppose that it is one of the necessary parts of their diet, not just for a mineral supply.  

'But still we cannot understand why it is so important for them. We have spotted them at the coal outcrops at a height of 2,600 - 2,700 metres.' 

The sheep has the Latin name Ovis nivicola kodarensis, and these unique pictures are from camera traps set in its natural habitat .

Dr Medvedev said that the recent discovery of a killed animal enabled full DNA analysis.

'We took samples. We were lucky because we found the relatively fresh remains of a sheep, killed by some predator,' he said. 'So we took the samples and sent them for DNA analysis. And the result came back that it  differs genetically from (other) snow sheep.'

Kodar bighorn sheep

Adult Kodar snow sheep pictured in winter colors by camera trap. Picture: Fund 'Snow Leopard'

The DNA analysis was made at the All-Russian Research Institute of Animal Husbandry in Moscow region by Tatiana Deniskova and Arsen Dotsev. 

'They made a full-genome DNA analysis and confirmed that the genetic code of the Kodar sheep differs from its closest relatives in Yakutia (also Siberia). Besides, the DNA shows that it is a relict subspecies. That is, we believe that the Kodar sheep have close ties with ancient snow sheep that inhabited the area up to Baikal thousands of years ago.'

Medvedev is director of the centre for the protection and study of the snow leopard (Fund 'Snow Leopard') at Irkutsk State Agricultural University.

'The sheep is uniquely adapted to steep, and very steep terrain. It is a climber, an outstanding climber, which surpasses the abilities of the ibex.'

Kodar bighorn sheep

Kodar bighorn sheep

Kodar bighorn sheep

'It is squat, short-legged, that is, it has a stretched body... the hind legs stand on the one side of the ledge, and the body goes around, with the front legs standing on the other side.' Picture: Channel 360,

He said that after the initial sighting it took two decades to get pictures of the shy sheep, and it is only now that its DNA has been examined.

Another expert at the centre, Anton Tsyatska, said: 'The body structure is different from other sheep. It has strong muscles. The skull has a different shape and the space between the horns is bigger. The girth of the horns is up to 34 centimetres. 

'They have a special eyeball structure.  Big eyes allow them to see well and be guided in the mountains.

'It is squat, short-legged, that is, it has a stretched body... the hind legs stand on the one side of the ledge, and the body goes around, with the front legs standing on the other side.'

He said the coal-eating was a 'peculiarity', believing it to be mainly a mineral boost. 'Hoofed animals need the mineral additive. So coal is their mineral boost. 

Kodar bighorn sheep

Kodar bighorn sheep

Kodar bighorn sheep

'The sheep is uniquely adapted to steep, and very steep terrain. It is a climber, an outstanding climber, which surpasses the abilities of the ibex.' Picture: 

'We have taken coal samples and passed these to a laboratory for chemical analysis, so that we can understand what these sheep take from the coal - which elements?'

There are hopes to undertake an aerial survey to count the number of sheep from the new subspecies. Dr Medvedev said the sheep should be in the Russian Red Book as an endangered species. 

He argued for a 'reserve herd' to be kept to save this subspecies in case the main part of the population dies. Several exceptionally snowy winters could kill off the main herd, he said.

The research was organised by Fund 'Snow Leopard' in Irkutsk. They welcome foreign scientists and organisations to take part in the research and rescue of sheep and other wildlife species.

Comments (7)

Extremely interesting, I really enjoyed to read this article. Thank you very much and keep publishing such articles.

All the best.
Eytan Bloom, Canada
09/11/2020 13:40
So sad that humans are still so stupid that we would even have to post warnings to each other to keep an animal's location a secret because other humans would come there to kill them for no other reason than to kill them and take a part of their body away for display in some dusky basement somewhere thousands of miles away. Don't they realize that these animals are probably important members of their herd. Especially the "trophy" animals. They're not just hurting the animal they kill; they are threatening the whole species which threatens all of us. I wonder if the coal is eaten for the carbon because perhaps another part of their diet is somewhat toxic. Carbon is an excellent digestive filter for intestinal toxins.
Erik Bosma, Mission, BC, Canada
27/05/2017 04:32
Looks Alot Like The Sheep Found Here In The Western United States, The Two Gotta Be Related!...Very Cool!
Dave Holguin, West Covina California, USA
17/04/2017 05:17
Acho que caçadores são iguais a traficantes de drogas...Só o dinheiro os interessa!!!
Que o governo possa proteger a fauna do seu país!!!
Plínio, Maceió/ Brazil
02/03/2017 07:00
Amazing that in 2017 we still determine new species of animal like these. Nature's wonder to have kept these safe and surviving for so long. The coal is just compressed plant material so maybe they have been feeding off it for so long that they adapted their ability to process it as the the forest turned into coal. Could be amazing development in how mom adapts her flock to changing planet conditions just like the early horse that survived for 350,000 years. .
Susan11111, Las Cruces NM USA
21/02/2017 06:53
Well said Benedikt, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I will just add that nature never ceases to amaze and intrigue us. We could never replace the value of what we can learn. Thank you to everyone taking care of and protecting nature.
Pamela Tetarenko, League City, USA
18/02/2017 09:36
just keep the location a well guarded secret. or well heeled hunters will come and want a trophy. for lots of money everything is for sale. not only in Russia by the way...
Benedikt, Moscow
17/02/2017 19:13

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