According to a report, in June about 60,000 saiga antelope mysteriously died in central Kazakhstan over the course of four days.
Although it is not the first time saiga antelope mysteriously vanish by the thousands in only a few days, conservationists are worried that if the trend continues the critically endangered species may not last long.
Scientists had to try and solve the mystery of the die-offs, but that wasn’t easy since there are many factors that may have caused the problem.
Some scientists believed that the collapse of the antelope population was either related to climate change or pollution. Others argued that unusually lush and moist vegetation may have caused some digestive complications, while some researchers even put the blame on an undisclosed rocket fuel spill in the animals’ habitat.
During their investigation, researchers took blood, soil, water, and air samples and the findings baffled just about everyone.
Investigators reported that they may have found the silent killer of the rare animals. The environmental samples and necropsies revealed that some otherwise harmless gut bacteria may have turned against the animals.
Scientists said that there were two main suspects: Pasteurella and Clostridia, which can wreak havoc within an animal’s body if its immune system is compromised. Animals eventually die from extensive internal bleeding caused by the bacteria.
Pasteurella, researchers explained, is common to saigas and other ruminants. The bacteria were first found by French microbiologist Louis Pasteur in chicken during a cholera epidemic. Researchers said that the bugs are also found in many cats and dogs’ mouths but they do no harm unless the immune system is weakened.
The research team also conducted DNA tests to learn whether Clostridia bacteria were also the culprit. Tests revealed that the microorganisms had nothing to do with the mysterious die-offs.
But what made Pasteurella become so invasive and deadly? Investigators believe that climate had a lot to do with it. There was a harsh winter and a relatively wet spring. Temperature fluctuations may have weakened the animals’ immune systems. Also, the wet climate conditions may have helped Pasteurella reproduce uncontrollably. A mix of the two factors may have done the saiga antelope in, researchers suggest.
Conservationists also noted that wildlife populations usually follow a boom and bust trend. For example, the populations of snowshoe hares in Canada boom and contract by up to 25 times over a cycle of eight to 11 years. In most cases, predators, lack of food, and disease are to blame.
Scientists suspect that saigas may also follow a similar trend since there were many population collapses reported over the course of decades. The worst was recorded in the late 1980s when 400,000 saigas suddenly died with no apparent reason.
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