An Ultimate Ungulate Fact SheetReturn to Artiodactyla

Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Chordata
    Class: Mammalia
      Order: Artiodactyla
        Family: Bovidae
          Subfamily: Caprinae
            Genus: Ovis

Ovis nivicola

      Snow sheep, Siberian bighorn sheep


Ovis nivicola [Eschscholtz, 1829].  
Citation: Zool. Atlas, Part 1, p. 1, pl. 1.
Type locality: Russia, E Kamchatka.

Click on the pictures above for a larger view of the photographs

General Characteristics

Body Length: 140-160 cm / 4.6-5.3 ft.
Shoulder Height: 95-112 cm / 3.1-3.7 ft.
Tail Length: 10 cm / 4 in.
Weight: 60-120 kg / 132-264 lb.

The grayish brown coat is accented by a small patch of light hair on the buttocks.  The wooly winter coat is a light, milky coffee colour.  The fronts of the legs are dark chocolate brown, while the rear edges may have whitish markings.  A dark band, which runs across the nose between the eyes and muzzle, contrasts greatly with the bright white rostrum.  The ears are small and dark grey in colour.  The horns, found in both sexes, are considerably lighter than those of the related Bighorn sheep, with up to 35% less horn substance.  Growing to 89 cm / 35 inches long in males, the horns curl backwards, downwards, and upwards around the ears, corkscrewing outwards in old males as the horns begin their second revolution.  While the base of a male's horns may be up to 38 cm / 15 inches in circumference, those in females are significantly thinner and shorter, curving backwards in a sabre-like fashion.

Ontogeny and Reproduction

Gestation Period: 8.5 months.
Young per Birth: 1
Weaning: At 4-6 months.
Sexual Maturity: Females at 2 years, males at 5 years.
Life span: 9 years.

Ecology and Behavior

The snow sheep is a well adapted mountain dweller - extremely agile and nimble, and able to move quickly over steep, uneven terrain.  Within bachelor herds, a dominance hierarchy is formed based primarily on horn size.  These hierarchies remain relatively stable, even in the breeding season, with larger males getting the majority of the mating rights.  However, if two males have approximately equal sized horns, the dominant/subordinate relationship is decided in combat.  Facing each other from a distance, they run towards each other with heads lowered, rearing up and crashing their horns together in an attempt to throw their rival off balance.

Family group: Large groups generally segregated by sex.
Diet: Grasses, lichens.
Main Predators: Large carnivores.


Alpine meadows with rocky terrain in northeastern Russia.

Range Map (Redrawn from Weinberg et al., 1997)

Conservation Status

The snow sheep is classified as low risk, conservation dependent by the IUCN (1996).  Also, O. n. borealis is considered vulnerable, and O. n. nivicola as a low risk, near threatened subspecies.


More closely allied to the North American sheep than the Asian or European sheep, the snow sheep is thought to have evolved in the Americas, diverging from the two American sheep via a movement across the then-existent Bering land bridge.  Ovis (Latin) a sheep.  Nix (Latin), genitive nivis, snow; colo (Latin) I cultivate, can mean I inhabit: hence nivicola, a dweller amongst snow.

Literature Cited

Clark, J. L.  1964.  The Great Arc of Wild Sheep.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Geist, V.  1990.  Mountain sheep (Ovis nivicola, Ovis dalli, Ovis canadensis).  In Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals.  Edited by S. P. Parker.  New York: McGraw-Hill.  Volume 5, pp. 554-560.

Valdez, R.  1982.  The Wild Sheep of the World.  Mesilla, New Mexico: Wild Sheep and Goat International.

Weinberg, P. I., A. K. Fedosenko, A. B. Arabuli, A. Myslenkov, A. V. Romashin, I. Voloshina, and N. Zheleznov.  1997.  The Commonwealth of Independent States (former USSR).  In Wild Sheep and Goats and their Relatives.  Status Survey and Action Plan for Caprinae.  Edited by D. M. Shackleton and the IUCN/SSC Caprinae Specialist Group.  IUCN: Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.  pp. 172-193.

Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder [editors]. 1993. Mammal Species of the World (Second Edition). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.  Available online at

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