By John R. Platt
(Click here for original article)

This is getting a bit weird. In May 2010 at least 12,000 critically endangered saiga antelopes (Saiga tatarica) were found dead in Kazakhstan. Exactly one year later a second mass die-off occurred, killing 450 of the rare animals. Now, once again almost exactly a year later, yet another round of deaths has struck Kazakhstan’s saiga population. Nearly 1,000 dead antelopes have been found over the past two weeks.

The previous deaths were blamed on pasteurellosis, an infection that afflicts the lungs. Healthy animals aren’t usually affected by the bacterium that causes this disease but it can prove fatal in creatures whose immune systems have been compromised. This week Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Agriculture blamed the most recent spate of deaths on pasteurellosis, although they provided no details.

But some ecologists in Kazakhstan and Russia are instead blaming the fatalities on the April landing of a Soyuz capsule from the International Space Station. At least 120 dead saigas were found near the village of Sorsha, where the Soyuz landed last month. Others see a possible link to the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in central Kazakhstan. “It could be from chemical elements left from space rockets that fly over this place,” ecologist Musagali Duambekov, leader of the For a Green Planet political movement, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). He also suggested the “extensive use of fertilizers” in the region could be harming the antelopes’ immune systems.

Others suggest a more natural cause. Eleanor Milner-Gulland, chair of the Saiga Conservation Alliance, told RFE/RL the animals may have consumed too much wet or “rich” vegetation tainted by bacteria during the breeding season. Most of the dead saigas were females who had just given birth, which may have left them in a weakened state and unable to feed their young, which also died.

Once numbering in the millions, saigas were extensively poached after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today just 85,000 or so animals remain in five isolated populations in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. Other than these mysterious die-offs, the main threats to saigas remain poaching for their meat and traditional Asian medicine, in which the animals’ translucent horns are used to “cure” headaches, fevers, sore throats and other ailments.

About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Flickr photo courtesy of Richard Reading/USFWS

Check out the creepiest mass animal deaths ever in the slideshow below:
Loading Slideshow...
  • Dogs Over The Bridge

    In the past fifty years, 50 to <a href="http://www.cracked.com/article/181_the-6-creepiest-places-earth/" target="_hplink">600</a> dogs have jumped over Scotland's Overtoun Bridge and plummeted to their deaths. A few years ago, five dogs jumped in under six months. <a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-411038/Why-dogs-leapt-deaths-Overtoun-Bridge.html" target="_hplink">The Daily Mail</a> wrote an article featuring reports of horrified pet owners who walked their dog over the bridge, when suddenly the dog would, without warning, leap over the bridge, falling 50 ft to the rocky bottom below. Perhaps even more disturbing, there are <a href="http://www.cracked.com/article/181_the-6-creepiest-places-earth/" target="_hplink">reports</a> of "second timers" - of the few dogs who have survived the fall, some jumped over the same bridge <em>again</em>. Many <a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-411038/Why-dogs-leapt-deaths-Overtoun-Bridge.html" target="_hplink">theories</a> have circulated about why dogs react this way to the bridge. Some suggest that the dogs are deliberately committing suicide, perhaps due to depression in their owners or even a supernatural force. More recent research suggests that it may be the scent of minks, an animal known to live under the bridge. Whatever the explanation may be, perhaps dog owners should simply stop walking their dogs over the Overtoun Bridge.

  • Exploding Toads

    <a href="http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/dead-blackbirds-arkansas-bizarre-animal-deaths-110105.html" target="_hplink">LiveScience</a> reports that in 2005, over 1,000 toads exploded in Germany. An autopsy revealed that birds had eaten their livers, causing the toads to puff up and explode. Perhaps the birds were hired by Hannibal Lecter.

  • Sheep Suicide March

    In a pretty strong argument that sheep really do follow blindly, hundreds of sheep followed each other over a cliff in Turkey in 2005. According to the <a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4665511.stm" target="_hplink">BBC</a>, 400 sheep died, but another 1,100 falling sheep survived the pileup due to bodies cushioning their 15-meter fall. The mass “sheep suicide” devastated villagers in the eastern Van province, as families had relied heavily on their sheep for survival.<a href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/offbeat/2005-07-08-sheep-suicide_x.htm" target="_hplink"> USA Today</a> suggests that it was an estimated loss of $100,000. What we want to know is, if all the sheep were following each other blindly, which stupid sheep was leading them all?

  • Thousands Of Dead Red Devils

    In 2005, <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/02/0223_050223_giantsquid.html" target="_hplink">National Geographic</a> reported that thousands of jumbo squid were found beached in California. The death of these “Red Devils” remains a mystery - they may live at depths of over 2,000 feet, so it’s hard to learn much about them. In life <em>or</em> death.

  • Birds And Fish Bizarreness

    In early 2011, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/05/hundreds-more-dead-birds-_n_804952.html" target="_hplink">thousands</a> of birds and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/05/dead-birds-fall-from-sky-_n_804591.html" target="_hplink">millions</a> of fish were found dead across the globe. Mass numbers of dead fish have appeared in Maryland, Arkansas, Brazil, and New Zealand. Meanwhile, a crazy number of dead birds have been found in Arkansas, Louisianna, Kentucky, and Sweden. Theories ranged from fireworks to the apocalypse. We're hoping it was closer to the former.

  • 300 Hippos

    <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2010-07-29/world/uganda.anthrax_1_anthrax-hippos-game-meat?_s=PM:WORLD" target="_hplink">300</a> Hippos were found dead in a Ugandan park in 2004. An investigation revealed that the mass death was due to an anthrax outbreak found in their water. More recently, <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2010-07-29/world/uganda.anthrax_1_anthrax-hippos-game-meat?_s=PM:WORLD" target="_hplink">82</a> hippos died this June from another anthrax outbreak in Uganda.

  • Thousands Of Flamingos, Penguins, And Pelicans

    <a href="http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2040762_2040769_2040787,00.html" target="_hplink">Time Magazine</a> reports that in 2009, birds of many varieties died in mass numbers in Chile. Thousands of flamingos, 1,200 penguins, and about 60 pelicans all were found dead over the course of two months. There has been no proven reason for why all of these birds died, although some theories point to global warming, pollution, overfishing, or the unusually hot weather.

  • Hundreds Of Beached Whales

    One eery Sunday night in 2009, nearly 200 pilot whales stranded themselves on an island between Australia's mainland and Tasmania, reports the <a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7918144.stm" target="_hplink">BBC</a>. A few months earlier, over 150 pilot whales had beached themselves on Tasmania's west coast. One theory suggests that there may have been a disturbance in echo-location due to nearby humans.

  • 10,000 Wildebeests Pileup

    <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/bigphotos/37881794.html" target="_hplink">National Geographic</a> reports that an estimated 10,000 Wildebeest lay piled up dead along the banks of Kenya last October. The animals all drowned while trying to migrate across the river, resulting in one percent of the ENTIRE species population being lost. We can’t help but wonder… after the first one, two, even 5,000 wildebeest drowned, why did the rest of them still decide to enter the water?

  • 50% Of Earth's Species

    Forget mass deaths that happened last year, even last century. This mass animal death really redefines "mass." 65 million years ago, <a href="http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/images/yucatan.html" target="_hplink">NASA</a> reports that the Chicxulub crater was formed when an asteroid or comet slammed into the earth, wiping out over 50% of the Earth's species. Dinosaurs didn't just die in mass, they went extinct. Makes a few thousand bird deaths seem like a drop in the bucket, doesn't it?

  • Frog Shower

    <a href="http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/dead-blackbirds-arkansas-bizarre-animal-deaths-110105.html" target="_hplink">LiveScience</a> reports that a shower of frogs may have fallen to the ground in the early 20th century. The report is based on a book by Charles Fort, who describes the phenomenon as "a shower of frogs which darkened the air and covered the ground for a long distance." While this event occurred during a rainstorm in Kansas City, Missouri, similar reports popped up in dozens of countries around the world, from Germany to Tahiti. Scientists believe it is possible that strong winds may have carried the light animals short distances, creating the appearance of a frog shower.

  • Animals Escape Death

    10 lucky critters escape from becoming road kill.