A strange mass death of antelopes keeps scientists guessing.
Something absolutely terrifying has been happening since May, and no one really knows why it is happening. Geoecologist Steffen Zuther and his colleagues went to Africa to do research on a herd of saigas, a critically endangered, steppe-dwelling antelope - but they may have already been too late; there was already a significant loss of life.
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"But since there happened to be die-offs of limited extent during the last years, at first we were not really alarmed," Zuther, the international coordinator of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative told Live Science.
However, the problem has only gotten worse. In just four days, 60,000 antelopes, the entire herd, had died. As soon as they started doing more research, they found that this was happening in many different herds and they immediately got to work to try to stem the death.
Then one day, it stopped.
Now they are left to try to pick up the pieces and understand what happened to all of those animals, and even more importantly, what they can do to stop the mass dying from happening again.
"The extent of this die-off, and the speed it had, by spreading throughout the whole calving herd and killing all the animals, this has not been observed for any other species," Zuther said. "It's really unheard of."
Saigas play a critical role in the ecosystem of the arid grassland steppe and without them, things are going to get difficult for the other animals as well. They help to keep the grass alive, they stop decomposition, and they even prevent wildfires.
"Where you find saiga, we recognize also that the other species are much more abundant," Zuther said.
Saigas, which have been listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, live in a few herds in Kazakhstan and neighboring areas.
Studies so far into the saigas haven't really revealed anything interesting or abnormal about the ones that have died. Tissue samples taken from the bodies revealed that toxins, produced by Pasteurella and possibly Clostridia bacteria, which most likely caused extensive bleeding in most of the animals' organs and led to their deaths. But Pasteurella is found normally in the bodies of saigas, and it usually doesn't cause harm unless there is some other problem. But what is that other problem?
"There is nothing so special about it. The question is why it developed so rapidly and spread to all the animals," Zuther said.
A similar event happened in 1988, but the politics of the area meant that there wasn't a lot of research done - hopefully this time can be different.
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This is not the first time a mass death of antelopes puzzled the world. Just in May, 120,000 Saiga died in Kazakstan.