- CLASS: Mammalia
- ORDER: Artiodactyla
- FAMILY: Bovidae
- GENUS: Budorcas
- SPECIES: taxicolor
- SUBSPECIES: bedfordi (Shensi or golden takin), taxi color (Mishmi takin), whitei (Bhutan takin), tibetana (Sichuan takin)
Talkin' about takins: With horns like a wildebeest, a nose like a moose, a tail like a bear, and a body like a bison, the takin (rhymes with rockin') looks like a character from Dr. Seuss! This large, muscular, hoofed mammal is sometimes referred to as a goat antelope, because it has things in common with both goats and antelope. But the takin is most closely related to sheep and to the goat-like aoudad, or Barbary sheep, of North Africa.
Because of their large, powerful bodies and impressive horns, takins have few natural enemies other than bears, wolves, leopards, and dholes. They are generally slow moving but can react quickly if angered or frightened. When needed, takins can leap nimbly from rock to rock. If they sense danger, takins warn others with a loud "cough" that sends the herd running for cover in the dense underbrush, where they lie down to avoid being seen. Takins can also make an intimidating roar or bellow. They look a bit silly as they do this, with their mouths open and tongues sticking out, but don't be fooled: wildlife care specialists know that their space should be respected, and never enter the habitats with the takins.
HABITAT AND DIET
Takins have some neat adaptations that help them stay warm and dry during the bitter cold of winter in the rugged Himalayan Mountains. A thick, secondary coat is grown to keep out the chill, which they shed for the summer. They also have a very noteworthy nose! The large, moose-like snout has big sinus cavities to warm up the air inhaled before it gets to the lungs. Without this adaptation, takins would lose a large amount of body heat just by breathing.
Yet another protection is their oily skin. Although takins have no skin glands, their skin secretes an oily, bitter-tasting substance that acts as a natural raincoat in storms and fog. Streaks of this oily stuff can be seen where takins rub up against the sides of their habitats at the San Diego Zoo! Split hooves help takins move around easily in their rocky habitat. They also have an odor that smells like a strange combination of horse and musk. Both males and females have shiny black, crescent-shaped horns that grow from the center of their massive head and can reach up to 35 inches (90 centimeters) in length.
Each spring, takins gather in large herds and migrate up the mountains to the tree line, an altitude above 14,000 feet (4,300 meters). As cooler weather approaches and food becomes scarce, the takins move down to forested valleys. As they move up, down, or across the mountains, takins use the same routes over and over. This creates a series of well-worn paths through the dense growths of bamboo and rhododendrons that lead to their natural salt licks and grazing areas.
Takins eat many kinds of alpine and deciduous plants and evergreens. When it comes to food, takins munch on almost any vegetation within reach. This includes the tough leaves of evergreen rhododendrons and oaks, willow and pine bark, bamboo leaves, and a variety of new-growth leaves and herbs. They can easily stand on their hind legs, front legs propped against a tree, to reach for higher vegetation if they need to. If the tastiest leaves are out of reach, takins have been known to use their powerful bodies to push over small trees to bring those leaves closer!
Like cows and sheep, takins are ruminants and pass food into the first stomach, the rumen, when they first swallow it. Microbes in the rumen help digest very small particles of food. Larger particles pass into a second chamber that regurgitates these particles, called cud, back into the mouth to be chewed into pieces small enough to be digested properly. Takins typically eat in the early morning and again in the late afternoon. They spend the day under the cover of dense vegetation, venturing into the open only on cloudy or foggy days. When takins aren’t eating, they’re usually resting. A takin sleeps with its head resting on top of its extended front feet, almost like a dog!
Takins at the San Diego Zoo are fed Bermuda hay, alfalfa, herbivore pellets, and low-starch, high-fiber biscuits.
The size of a takin herd changes with the seasons: during spring and early summer, herds can number up to 300 individuals; during cooler months, when food is less plentiful, the large herds break up into smaller groups of 10 to 35 takins as they head up the mountain. Herds are made up of adult females (called cows), kids (which is what takin young are called), subadults, and young males. Older males, called bulls, are generally solitary except during the rut, or mating season, in late summer. While young takins butt their heads with each other for fun, bulls butt heads to establish dominance.
Normally solitary, bull takins meet up with herds for a short time during the rut. They bellow loudly to attract cows and notify other bulls of their presence. They may find takin cows by tracking their scent. Once they meet, a bull sniffs and licks the female to determine if she is receptive.
Takin cows seek out areas of dense vegetation to give birth to a single kid in early spring (twins are rare). Within three days of its birth, a takin kid is able to follow its mother through most types of terrain. This is very important if bears or wolves are nearby or if the herd needs to travel a long distance for food. If a kid gets separated from its mother during the first two weeks, it gives a panicked noise that sounds like a lion cub! The mother answers with a low, guttural call that brings the kid running back to her.
At birth, takin kids are much darker than adults to give them camouflage from predators; they even have a dark stripe along the back that disappears as the youngsters gets older. Their coat gets lighter in color, longer, and shaggier as they get older. A takin kid eats solid food and stops nursing at around two months old, although it may continue to stay near Mom until after her next calf is born. Horns begin to grow when the takin kid is about six months old.
Kids are much more frisky than their parents. They kick up their heels, head butt, and frolic with each other. It is good to be a young takin!
For the most part, takins are fairly quiet, but they do make some interesting noises, from snorts to deep, bugle-like notes and loud whistles coming out of that impressive nose. A guttural burping sound means the takin wants something. A deep noise that sounds like “whup” is a warning or for asserting dominance. A mother may call to her kid with a high-pitched “rrr” sound, and males can make a resounding, guttural bellow during fights with other males. A loud “cough” sends the herd running for cover.
Takins also convey information using a variety of body postures. These visual displays are an important way takins communicate with each other. For example, a male shows dominance with an erect posture and a raised neck and chin. He might position his body sideways to another takin to emphasize his size. A takin signals aggression with a head-down posture, holding its neck horizontal and rigid, with the head and horns hooked to one side. A lowered head, an arched back, snorting, and head crashing often follow prolonged eye contact between individuals.
The scent of another takin’s skin or urine offers information, too. In particular, pheromones in a takin’s urine may advertise sexual status and identity. To enhance this type of communication, a male sprays his own forelegs, chest, and face with urine. A female soaks her tail when she urinates.
Like the giant panda, the Sichuan takin is considered a national treasure in China and has the highest level of legal protection there. India, Bhutan, and China all have laws prohibiting takin hunting, but despite their size and defenses, some people hunt takins regularly for their meat, both within and outside protected areas. In fact, human hunters cause most takin deaths. Such poaching is hard to control. Many people are unaware of the conservation laws that are in place to protect these takins, and in many of these remote areas, there is no enforcement of the laws. Overhunting has resulted in the disappearance of takins in some areas of their range, and recovery is slow.
But the main cause for their declining numbers is the loss of their habitat. Farming, mining, pasture burning, cane and bamboo cutting, and road construction have destroyed large areas of takin habitat. As human populations grow, they encroach on areas occupied by takins. Sometime these activities also fragment the remaining habitat, disrupting migration routes and dividing takin herds. Domestic livestock trample vegetation, compete for food, and transmit diseases to takins.
And a 2010 study of Mishmi takins in the eastern Himalayas suggests that takins are especially vulnerable to climate change. Declining snowfall and melting glaciers may decrease the growth of alpine grassland and scrub. Ultimately, climate change could alter the existing mix of wildlife in all takins’ habitat. China has given the takin full protection under Chinese law, and two reserves have been created for the protection of Sichuan takins.
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is helping protect takins. We are one of five members of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2), a group devoted to endangered species study, management, and recovery. Collectively, we have significant land holdings, specialized care facilities, and scientific and management expertise with wildlife in managed care and in nature. To study the ecology and behavior of the Sichuan takin, C2S2 developed radio-telemetry techniques and fitted radio collars to eight takins in the forests of Tangjiahe Nature Reserve, providing information on the takins’ seasonal movements, preferred habitat, and natural behaviors. Such knowledge is critical for developing a long-term conservation and management plan for takins.
The San Diego Zoo's breeding program for takins has been extremely successful, and a number of these offspring now make their home at other North American zoos. The work we do with takins is helping scientists better understand how to protect them in their native habitat; however, we still have much to learn about this odd-looking yet majestic goat antelope of Asia.