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How Did Half of an Endangered Antelope Species Suddenly Die?

Update Date: Nov 04, 2015 07:51 PM EST
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Last spring, 211,000 saiga antelopes, an endangered species, died in a mysterious event scientists are still working to understand, but had large implications for the continued existence of life on Earth as the planet goes through changes never before experienced because of climate change.

Scientists believe the cause of the die off was changes to bacteria that the antelopes typically carry, but may have become deadly in the wake of climate change and severe, unusual rain storms, The New York Times reports.

The bacteria in question is called saiga, which gives the antelope species its name. The bacteria is omnipresent in the antelope, whose numbers fell as low as 50,000 before conservation efforts began in the 1990s.

The scientists investigating the die off are particularly disturbed by their findings and said that if such dramatic changes are proven to be the cause of die offs, entire species could go extinct in less than a year.

The loss of the saiga antelopes represents half of the entire population, and 88 percent of a subgroup called the Betpak-dala population, which also happened to be the largest single population of the animals.

Adding to the horror of the sheer number of dead animals is the fact that researchers discovered they died within hours from internal bleeding and bacterial infections of otherwise benign organisms.

Previous research has shown that higher temperatures can make harmless bacteria lethal and the scientists believe that the unseasonal, severe rainstorms compounded the impact the bacteria had on the antelope because it brought cooler temperatures and wetness after the animals had shed their winter coats.

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