New Findings on a Woolly Wanderer

July 22, 2011

In Afghanistan, researchers conducting a genetic study of the Marco Polo sheep discover the species to be an international traveler. WCS recommends trans-boundary monitoring to help ensure its future.

Elusive and difficult to track in their remote, mountainous habitat, Marco Polo sheep are a mysterious lot. For many years, scientists knew little about where they traveled and how their populations interacted with one another. But now, a genetic study of the woolly wanderers reveals that these sheep—the world's largest sheep species—journey extensively across the international borders of the Central Asian countries they call home.

Through DNA studies of fecal samples, researchers in WCS’s Afghanistan Program found that Marco Polo (or “argali”) sheep in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan share genes with sheep in neighboring Tajikistan and China, in spite of the challenging terrain. The researchers found that sheep in China, however, are somewhat more isolated, highlighting a need for international collaboration to protect corridors between the region’s countries. Their study was conducted with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

“Wide-ranging species such as Marco Polo sheep are difficult to monitor in the best of conditions, and our ability to follow them across their mountain habitats is limited,” said Richard B. Harris, a wildlife scientist from the University of Montana and WCS and co-author of two recently published papers on the study. “Non-invasive methods of determining population trends and relatedness are extremely valuable in understanding how to best protect these magnificent animals.”

Peter Zahler, Deputy Director for WCS’s Asia Program, pointed to the need for conservation diplomacy to preserve the species’ future. “The study’s results underline the need for international cooperation between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China, and even Pakistan to ensure that the world’s Marco Polo sheep populations can continue to move across these giant mountains as needed, irrespective of political boundaries.”

The Marco Polo sheep is actually a subspecies of argali and borrows its name from the 13th century explorer who described the animal in his travelogue. Argali are classified as Near Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Marco Polo sheep face threats from human-related activities such as poaching, habitat degradation, and fragmentation.


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