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Half of Critically Endangered Saiga Antelope Population Dies Suddenly

posted: 11/05/15
by: Discovery.com Staff
Saiga antelope
botafogo_dentro/iStock

Toxins produced by an otherwise common bacteria are likely responsible for the sudden death of hundreds of thousands of critically endangered saiga antelopes earlier this summer, researchers say.

In September, LiveScience reported that toxins produced by Pasteurella bacteria appeared to have caused extensive fatal internal bleeding in necropsied specimens. Although Pasteurella is commonly found in saigas, it is only known to cause harm when the animals' immune systems are weakened.

Researchers now believe that unexpected weather earlier this year wreaked havoc on the antelopes' bodies, rendering them susceptible to the deadly toxin. Throughout the animals' range, 2015 was rife with climate change-related swings in temperature and "unusual rain conditions."

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Initial estimates pegged the death toll around 120,000 antelopes. Researchers now believe that upwards of 200,000 antelopes (more than half of the remaining population) fell victim to the fatal bacteria, many within a span of two weeks in May.

A separate Mongolian subspecies does not appear to have been affected by the die-offs.

The critically endangered saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) used to be widespread across Eurasia. Now, the animal is only found in fragmented populations in northern Asia. Even before this year's die-off, extensive poaching and habitat destruction in the twentieth century drove the species to the brink extinction.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on September 3, 2015 and has since been updated.

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