The Significance of Artesian Wells for Saigas within the Stepnoi Sanctuary, Astrakhan Region

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Article by Andrey Gilev and Karina Karenina, Vertebrate Zoology Department, Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. Contact: zoology.gilev@gmail.com / angil_1305@mail.ru

Saiga_New5

Article published in Saiga News Issue 20 on page 19.

The role of water sources of different types, including artesian well overflows, in the life history of the saiga is quite well known. They are particularly important in the species' most vulnerable period of calving, and for juveniles when the vegetation begins to dry out in the strong summer sunlight. We studied the role of artesian wells for saigas in detail, by conducting observations on May 11th-30th 2015, in the Stepnoi Sanctuary, Astrakhan region. We set up a temporary observation shelter close to a small lake formed from the overflow of an artesian well. It was a small, camouflaged colour, tent with observation holes allowing an all-round view. Observations were made every day, usually from 03:00am to 11.30am and 17:00pm to 19:30pm. Two observers entered the shelter and left only when there were no saigas visible. Monitoring was done using binoculars, photographs and videos. Animals were photographed side-on, full-length and full-face and later the pictures were used for identification of individual animals based on specific colour patterns, scars, bald heads and other natural markers. Horn pigmentation and the shape and location of cross rings at the base of the horns served as important identification features for males. If obvious individual features (scars, colour patterns) were missing, then females were identified using differences in the dark-coloured fur on their foreheads.

Young Male Saigas

A tournament between young male saigas in the open land near the artesian lake. 

Over the 20 days of observation, the number of saigas coming to drink varied on a daily basis. Daytime air temperatures fluctuated between +17 and +35 degrees celsius, on average +25 degrees celsius (according to data from www.gismeteo.ru in Linman village). Roughly 51 - 1,569 saigas per day (average 466 +/- 119) were recorded at the artesian lake. The largest number of animals was recorded on May 23rd, 25th and 26th (about 1,569, 923 and 1,094 animals respectively). Since observations were calculated conservatively and only made at certain times of the day, the actual number of saigas coming to the lake could be higher. Individual identification showed that many animals came to the artesian lake repeatedly (recorded maximum: 18 times over 12 days). This shows how important artesian lakes are for the existence of the saiga population within the Stepnoi sanctuary.

Young Saiga Drinking

A young saiga drinking artesian water. 

Artesian lakes as a source of water and minerals:

In total our observations lasted 195 hours, during which we noted that when saigas approached the artesian lake, they first started to drink and eat bare soil on the banks. Some animals did not come up to the water but practically every animal spent a long time (up to 40 minutes) biting the soil. It is characteristic of many birds and mammals to eat clay soil (geophagia) as a source of minerals and a natural adsorbent which neutralises toxins and normalises the intestinal flora. Thus, along with their obvious function as a watering place, artesians also serve as a place for rectifying mineral deficiencies. Apparently, eating soil which is rich in minerals is especially important for females in the calving period, since a large number of pregnant females came to the artesian lake and mainly spent their time eating soil. Individually identified females which were observed for 12 days (both before and after calving) ate soil whenever they were seen near the artesian lake. Other animals would also repeatedly come to the artesian and eat the soil; single animals, mixed groups of females and males, and groups of males. Eating soil took most time for females who came with their calves. The calves (aged 6-8 days and older) did not try to bite the soil, but whether they were with their mothers or not, they would drink often and for a long time, in spite of the current belief that younger calves only drink milk.

The significance of artesian lakes for socialization and rest:

The large, vegetation-free areas of flat land around the artesian lake served as a place for active social interaction by saigas. A common type of interaction was jousts between young males. These were short, and were often interrupted by one or both of the males eating soil, and characterised by frequent changes of partner. The males did not hurt each other. Apparently, this kind of practice jousting is necessary for future success in rutting. Older males that had come to drink with a group of females would drive away approaching males and constantly gathered their females. If there was more than one male in a group, they would often start to joust. Aggression was more manifest in these jousts than in those between younger males. However, in neither case did the animals inflict any visible damage on each other. 

Female saigas also socialised with each other on the bare areas near the artesian lake, though considerably less frequently than males. In rare cases the females butted and sprang on each other near the places where they ate soil. Sometimes, the initiator would then chase the other female for 20-40 seconds. From time to time, female saigas showed friendly behaviour, rubbing their muzzles against another female's head. Usually these contacts were between two females who had come to the artesian lake together.

When females came with their calves, the calves often played together. More often than not the play was between siblings, but sometimes calves from different females formed temporary groups to play together. In addition, calves regularly entered into social interactions with adults, including males. Apparently, the area near the artesian lake serves as a safe place for the socialization of young animals. Due to the good visibility, calves can move away from their mother, still staying within eyeshot. Active contacts with other animals are, undoubtedly, important for the formation of calves' social skills. In general, the special conditions for social interaction around artesian lakes may contribute to the population's viability.

Artesian lakes also serve as a resting place for saigas. Both males and females would periodically lie down by the banks of the lake and rest with their eyes closed, but their head still lifted. Females often rested in small groups of 5-10 animals. Adult males often lay down for only a few seconds in the intervals between jousts or gathering females. It is likely that the open spaces around the artesian lake provide good visibility and thus, a safe environment for resting.

The authors thank the staff of the Stepnoi sanctuary and its Director Vladimir Kalmykov for their assistance in this research and their invaluable contribution to saiga conservation. The work was done under the auspices of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (grant no. 14-04-31390).