One day in May of 2015, a handful of critically endangered saiga antelope dropped over, dead. This wasn’t necessarily alarming to the scientists in the area who were busy monitoring the herd; the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica tatarica) of the Central Asian steppe are stressed in springtime, which is calving season, and deaths happen every day. But the next day, more antelope died. On day three, they were dropping by the hundreds.
Within three weeks, 200,000 saiga antelope — 62 percent of the world’s population — were dead. And now, scientists have learned that the killer was lurking inside the animals all along.
A new study reveals that the ruminants were killed by a bacterium that normally lives in the antelopes’ tonsils without causing any problems. But unusually warm, moist weather apparently triggered the overgrowth of the bacteria, Pasteurella multocida, which subsequently found its way into the antelopes’ bloodstream and killed them. [Photos: Mass Death of the Saiga Antelope]
Unfortunately for the antelope (and the steppe ecosystem), climate change seems to be promoting warmer, moister weather in the region, said study leader Richard Kock, a wildlife veterinarian at the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London.