Posts Tagged ‘saiga antelope and flexible diets during the late Pleistocene’

Pleistocene Saiga Antelopes

August 31, 2017

The saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) ranged from western Europe to Alaska and the Yukon during some climate phases of the late Pleistocene.  This range closely corresponds with an environment known as the mammoth steppe.  This paleoenvironment was similar to the present day central Asian steppe but was more productive, hosting a greater variety of plants and microhabitats that included scrub, woodland, and wetland embedded in a sea of grass.  Summers were cool, winters were long, wind was constant, and precipitation was infrequent.  The bulbous nose of the saiga antelope is an adaptation for living in this kind of environment.  It helps warm frigid air and filter the dust in a dry windy climate.  The range of the saiga antelope has been greatly reduced since the late Pleistocene due to changes in the environment and overhunting by man.  Nevertheless, saiga antelope occurred in eastern Europe as late as the 17th century, indicating they are not a relict species confined to steppe grasslands.  A recent scientific study examining the bone chemistry of subfossil and extant saiga antelope specimens concluded this species can survive on a greater variety of plant foods than present day populations consume.

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Saiga antelopes are critically endangered today but lived from the British Isles to the Yukon, Canada during the late Pleistocene.

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Present day saiga antelope range.  During the Pleistocene they occurred from western Europe to Alaska.

This study found the diet of the saiga antelope overlapped with that of the caribou (Rangifer sp.) in southwestern Europe between 20,000 years BP-15,000 years BP.  It seems likely both species were subsisting upon lichen during winters when other plant foods were scarce.  Pleistocene saiga antelope apparently had a greater flexibility in their diet than present day populations.  The authors of this study suggest saiga antelope could potentially be introduced outside their present day range.  Poaching and disease outbreaks are endangering the surviving remnants of saiga antelope populations, so it could prove beneficial to establish new populations outside their present day range.  However, it’s possible some Pleistocene populations of saiga antelope may have been a distinct now extinct species with different dietary tolerances.  Some Russian paleontologist noted some morphological differences in saiga antelope specimens found outside their present day range, and they proposed a new species–Saiga borealis. Other paleontologists don’t accept this designation.  So far, no genetic studies have solved this difference of opinion.

The saiga antelope is considered a distant sister clade to the springbok-gerenuk clade.  They are the sole survivors of antelopes that roamed Europe before Ice Ages began to occur.  None of their closest relatives were able to evolve fast enough to survive deteriorating climatic conditions.

Reference:

Jurgensen, J.; at. al.

“Diet and Habitat of the Saiga Antelope during the Late Quaternary Using Stable Carbon and Nitrogene Isotope Ratios”

Quaternary Science Review March 2017

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