One of the wonderful reasons Twilight Beasts are so dear to us is because most are just downright weird. The peculiar llama with a trunk, dogs with teeth as strong as a hyena, and an armadillo that looked like an igloo were just a few of the odd creatures that roamed during the Pleistocene. The mammals ruled, but it was these funny looking ones that stay in our imagination. Cave Bears, sabretooth cats, and giant deer capture headlines, while equally magnificent, but maybe more average-looking creatures like the weird Madagascan aardvark might not.
Something that makes these animals even more fascinating is that many of them were tantalisingly close to being with us today. The Woolly Mammoth was still on the planet while the pyramids were being built, 4000 years ago. Cave lions were perhaps stalking on the Siberian tundra just 10,000 years ago. These wonderful beasts were just a hair’s breadth away from the present day. But they vanished.
Not all Twilight Beasts disappeared though. Every animal alive today is a survivor from the Pleistocene. I guess that sounds pretty strange? Probably because we think of the Pleistocene as a different time, a time covered by ice and giants. It is also pretty difficult to see animals familiar to us today living amongst such different beasts. In reality this fascinating Epoch only ended around 12,000 years ago. Although many animals vanished, many, many more survived. We are one of those survivors. Hippopotamus are another. The list goes on. There is one incredible beast alive today that you could pick up and plop straight into any Ice Age scene and it would look quite at home.
With its beautifully bizarre nose, the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) is a true survivor of the Pleistocene. A small antelope that would reach just above my hips, being around 3ft tall, they have a very striking feature: an exceedingly large and somewhat comical schnozzle. An over-sized nose is very good at breathing efficiently – cold air is warmed when breathing in, and less water is lost when breathing out. This gives the saiga an incredibly distinct character, especially with its large bulging eyes.
Perfectly adapted for the cold, they live today as they did in the past; on open plains staying away from the dense woodlands. (Although in tougher times they are resourceful and will forage in woodlands.) When they migrate, small groups join up and can eventually form enormous herds of tens of thousands running across the landscape. What’s really awesome is that during the Late Pleistocene, saiga were stampeding across the Mammoth Steppe in enormous herds. Fossil saiga have been found across Europe in Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark, and Belgium. Dated specimens from France (14,500 yrs ago) and Germany (12,500 years ago) indicate two late cold periods where they thrived. And fossils from Britain also support this.
Yes, saiga were in Britain.
In the late 1800s, a skull cap with horns of a male saiga were found in the Thames Gravel. This was the only British evidence until the 1980s. Researchers re-examined four sites in Somerset, discovering that they held the remains of saiga teeth and bones. While the Mammoth Steppe extended across Europe and into southern Britain, so did the range of the saiga. Fossils dating to around 13,000 years ago have also been found in Yukon, Canada, showing the extent of the Pleistocene geographic range. With water trapped in the ice at the poles, sea levels were lower allowing Siberia and Alaska to be connected by the Bering Land Bridge, creating a new subcontinent known as Beringia. Here, many animals migrated across the continent, including cave lions, mammoths, and humans. The saiga didn’t survive in North America, but their numbers held in Eurasia.
This Gonzo of the antelope family is a true ice age survivor. Just 300 years ago herds roamed far eastern Europe (Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Russia) and China and Mongolia. Today their numbers are dramatically low, and can only be found in one area of Russia, and a few spots in Kazakhstan. Overhunting for food and human habitation were a huge part of their decline, nearly causing their extinction. Chinese medicines were another threat: male saiga were prized for their horns used in ‘cooling water’ to bring down temperatures and fevers (which lead to their extinction in China).
In recent decades an invisible killer has been set loose in the herds of saiga, killing tens of thousands. Populations have recovered after these die-offs. However, recently, in May 2015, there was a mass die-off of an estimated 150,000 of these wonderful little animals. No one knows why. Massive die outs do happen in herds, but this was on an enormous scale. It seems too fast for a pathogen: normally when a deadly disease hits a herd many die, but there are some survivors – with this die-off in May, all the individuals in the herd died. One online article suggests that it may have been due to a bacteria which lies dormant in the saiga’s throats and then suddenly became toxic. Normally inactive, this bacteria, Pasteurella sp., can release toxins in the body causing fatal disease. If this was the culprit, then what caused it to simultaneously ‘wake up’ in the throats of over 150,000 saiga?
These incredible little creatures have bounced back from near extinction in the past. Almost hunted to extinction, the herds recovered. Hundreds of thousands have died in the last few decades from an unknown cause, but they have continued to replenish their numbers. These antelope are a critically endangered species. In the last year, their numbers have been reduced to dramatically. But I have hope. These are true survivors, and I have a strong feeling they will be around for a long time yet.
Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)
You can find out more about conservation of the saiga at the Saiga Conservation Alliance.
Several blog posts about the recent mass-deaths of the saiga:
Currant, A. P. (1986). ‘The Late glacial mammal fauna of Gough’s Cave, Cheddar, Somerset.’ Proceedings of Bristol University Speleology Society. 17(3). pp.286-304. [Full article]
Currant, A. P. (1987). ‘Late Pleistocene saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) on the Mendip.’ Proceedings of Bristol University Speleology Society. 18(1). pp.74-80. [Full article]
Harington, C. R. (1980). ‘Radiocarbon dates on some Quaternary mammals and artefacts from Northern North America.’ Arctic. 33(4). pp.815-832. [Full article]
Harington, C. R, & Cinq-Mars, J. (1995). ‘Radiocarbon dates on saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) fossils from Yukon and the Northwest Territories.’ Arctic. 48(4). pp.1-7. [Full article]
Kholodova, M.V., et al. (2006). ‘Mitochondrial DNA variation and population structure of the Critically Endangered saiga antelope Saiga tatarica.’ Oryx. 40: pp.103–107. [Abstract only]
Kurtén, B. (1968), ‘Pleistocene mammals of Europe.’ Transaction Publishers. [Book]
Kurtén, B. ‘The Pleistocene lion of Beringia.’ Annales Zooloici Fennici. 22(1). pp.117-121. [Full article]
Povolny, D. (1966). ‘The fauna of central Europe: Its Origin and Evolution.’ Systematic Zoology. 15(1). pp.46-53. [Full article]
Singh, N. J., et al. (2010). ‘Tracking greenery in Central Asia: The migration of the saiga antelope.’ Diversity and Distributions. 16 (4). pp.663–675. [Abstract only]
Smith Woodward, A. (1890. ‘Note on the occurrence of the saiga antelope in the Pleistocene deposit of the Thames Valley.’ Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. p.613. [Full article]