Previously unknown subspecies confirmed by DNA tests and probably numbering around 400.
Young males of Kodar snow sheep in summer colors pictured in June 2016. Picture: Dmitry Medvedev
The shy and elusive wild snow sheep live on the Kodar ridge in the TransBaikal region and while it was first sighted in 1994, it is only now that genetic evidence has established that it is, indeed, a distinct and previously unknown subspecies.
Scientists believe that it is 'relict' herd, related to extinct sheep that grazed in mountains close to Lake Baikal thousands of years ago.
With giant horns, it is an 'outstanding climber' - more adept over mountain terrain than the ibex. Amazingly, it chews on outcrops of coal, apparently not only as a 'mineral lick' but as part of the diet.
'Kodar is laced with the veins of coal and in many places there are outcrops,' said biologist Dr Dmitry Medvedev, who first spotted the sheep 23 years ago. We are sure that the sheep literarily chew the coal.
Kodar ringe - the places where live Kodar snow sheep. Pictures: Fund 'Snow Leopard', Dmitry Medvedev
'When we carried out winter surveys, in strong cold periods we can hear a specific crunching sound - the sheep eat the coal. We even suppose that it is one of the necessary parts of their diet, not just for a mineral supply.
'But still we cannot understand why it is so important for them. We have spotted them at the coal outcrops at a height of 2,600 - 2,700 metres.'
The sheep has the Latin name Ovis nivicola kodarensis, and these unique pictures are from camera traps set in its natural habitat .
Dr Medvedev said that the recent discovery of a killed animal enabled full DNA analysis.
'We took samples. We were lucky because we found the relatively fresh remains of a sheep, killed by some predator,' he said. 'So we took the samples and sent them for DNA analysis. And the result came back that it differs genetically from (other) snow sheep.'
Adult Kodar snow sheep pictured in winter colors by camera trap. Picture: Fund 'Snow Leopard'
The DNA analysis was made at the All-Russian Research Institute of Animal Husbandry in Moscow region by Tatiana Deniskova and Arsen Dotsev.
'They made a full-genome DNA analysis and confirmed that the genetic code of the Kodar sheep differs from its closest relatives in Yakutia (also Siberia). Besides, the DNA shows that it is a relict subspecies. That is, we believe that the Kodar sheep have close ties with ancient snow sheep that inhabited the area up to Baikal thousands of years ago.'
Medvedev is director of the centre for the protection and study of the snow leopard (Fund 'Snow Leopard') at Irkutsk State Agricultural University.
'The sheep is uniquely adapted to steep, and very steep terrain. It is a climber, an outstanding climber, which surpasses the abilities of the ibex.'
'It is squat, short-legged, that is, it has a stretched body... the hind legs stand on the one side of the ledge, and the body goes around, with the front legs standing on the other side.' Picture: Channel 360, Vesti.ru
He said that after the initial sighting it took two decades to get pictures of the shy sheep, and it is only now that its DNA has been examined.
Another expert at the centre, Anton Tsyatska, said: 'The body structure is different from other sheep. It has strong muscles. The skull has a different shape and the space between the horns is bigger. The girth of the horns is up to 34 centimetres.
'They have a special eyeball structure. Big eyes allow them to see well and be guided in the mountains.
'It is squat, short-legged, that is, it has a stretched body... the hind legs stand on the one side of the ledge, and the body goes around, with the front legs standing on the other side.'
He said the coal-eating was a 'peculiarity', believing it to be mainly a mineral boost. 'Hoofed animals need the mineral additive. So coal is their mineral boost.
'The sheep is uniquely adapted to steep, and very steep terrain. It is a climber, an outstanding climber, which surpasses the abilities of the ibex.' Picture: Vesti.ru
'We have taken coal samples and passed these to a laboratory for chemical analysis, so that we can understand what these sheep take from the coal - which elements?'
There are hopes to undertake an aerial survey to count the number of sheep from the new subspecies. Dr Medvedev said the sheep should be in the Russian Red Book as an endangered species.
He argued for a 'reserve herd' to be kept to save this subspecies in case the main part of the population dies. Several exceptionally snowy winters could kill off the main herd, he said.
The research was organised by Fund 'Snow Leopard' in Irkutsk. They welcome foreign scientists and organisations to take part in the research and rescue of sheep and other wildlife species.
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