Urial

Ovis vignei

Last updated: December 1, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Jrs Jahangeer/Shutterstock.com

Urials are the ancestors of modern-day domesticated sheep.

Urial Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Mammalia
Order
Artiodactyla
Family
Bovidae
Genus
Ovis
Scientific Name
Ovis vignei

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Urial Conservation Status

Urial Locations

Urial Locations

Urial Facts

Name Of Young
lamb, lambkin
Group Behavior
  • Herd
  • Social
  • Sociable
  • Herds
  • Gregarious
  • Community-minded
Fun Fact
Urials are the ancestors of modern-day domesticated sheep.
Estimated Population Size
18,000 mature individuals, and 30,000 total
Biggest Threat
poaching, competition with livestock
Most Distinctive Feature
large horns curled upwards
Distinctive Feature
reddish-brown coat
Other Name(s)
shapo or arkar
Gestation Period
five months
Age Of Independence
five to six months
Litter Size
one to three lambs depending on age of ewe
Habitat
forests, open woodland, grassland, shrubland, rocky cliffs and montane regions
Predators
snow leopards, wolves, golden eagles, and shepherd dogs
Diet
Herbivore
Average Litter Size
one lamb
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
  • Herd
  • Social
  • terrestrial
Favorite Food
grasses, shrubbery
Common Name
shapo, arkhar
Origin
Asia
Location
Afghanistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the Himalayas, Oman, and Uzbekistan
Group
herd, drove
Migratory
1

Urial Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Red
Skin Type
Bristled hairs
Lifespan
8 to 12 years
Weight
198.4 pounds
Height
2.62 feet to 3 feet
Age of Sexual Maturity
one and a half years
Venomous
No
Aggression
Low

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Urials are wild species of sheep that originated from Asia. They are a nearly ancient species of sheep, and domesticated sheep descend from their line. They have become endangered due to predation and human activities such as poaching, livestock grazing, and range and habitat loss.

Facts

  • Lambs and their mothers communicate by scent. They can recognize each other using their olfactory senses.
  • The urial is the ancestor of modern-day domestic sheep. They are also the oldest line of this species.
  • Urials are very gregarious and have their own social structure based on hierarchy and dominance.
  • Older male urials have their own “boys only” herd. Male juveniles stick with the females and lambs in another herd before joining the guys when they are mature.
  • Urials are a vulnerable species due to poaching, range loss, encroachment, and competition for resources with livestock. Two of the subspecies are considered endangered and critically endangered.

Scientific Name

The classification of the urial has been widely debated. After recent molecular studies, most taxonomists agree that the proper scientific name is Ovis vignei, yet some authors use Ovis orientalis as a synonym instead. Other authors use them interchangeably and classify both as the same species. However, Ovis orientalis is used to classify the mouflon, a similar animal to the urial. Since these animals have a different number of chromosomes each (the urial with 58 and mouflon with 54) as well as other differences, they are considered separate species.

The urial consists of six subspecies.

  • Transcaspian urial (Ovis vignei arkal)
  • Bukharan urial (Ovis vignei bocharensis)
  • Turkmenian sheep or Afghan urial (Ovis vignei cycloceros)
  • Punjab urial (Ovis vignei punjabensis)
  • Ladakh urial (Ovis vignei vignei)
  • Blanford’s urial or Baluchistan urial (Ovis vignei blanfordi) 

Urials belong to the genus Ovis, which comprises sheep and their closely related wild relatives. They also belong to the order Artiodactyla which houses hoofed, even-toed ungulates such as giraffes, pigs, cows, buffaloes, goats, and camels.

These sheep are also commonly called shapo or arkars.

Appearance

Urial lying down
Urials are nearly ancient, wild sheep.

©Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock.com

The urial is a medium-sized species of wild sheep also known as shapo or arkhar in their native regions. They have a distinctive long, reddish-brown coat, which fades during the colder winter season. Another distinguishing feature of theirs is the enormous horns the males have. These horns curl outwards from the top of the head and extend all the way to the back of the head.

There is a great amount of sexual dimorphism in the urial species, meaning that it is easy to tell the males and females apart due to physiological differences. Female urial horns are shorter and more compressed. The horns of the male urial can grow to around 3.3 feet long. Also, the male urials have a black ruff on their necks that spread out to the chest area. They also have white beards below their mouth whereas female urials typically have a solid color throughout their entire body, except for their lower legs near the hooves.

Adult male urials average about 2.62 feet to 3 feet tall to their shoulder and weigh around 200 pounds.

Evolution and History

Urials belong to the sheep genus, Ovis. This genus has been the subject of decades-long debates and disputes concerning its species and subspecies.

New molecular studies show that Ovis is a monophyletic group, which means that its members are descended from a common ancestor or ancestral group that is not shared with any other group. Ovis deviated from the artiodactyl mammal subfamily Caprinae about two to three million years ago, most likely in Asia.

Urials, like other sheep belonging to the genus Ovis, adapted to their environment quite well. They have thick, long coats that insulate them from cold winters. Long bristly hair grows over their wooly coat during autumn to prepare them for the winter and is promptly shed in spring when they no longer require it.

Both female and male urials have horns which they use to fight each other with to establish their dominance. They rarely injure each other with their horns because they mostly ram their heads together. For protection, they have double-layered skulls and thick skin.

Behavior

Urials have an interesting social structure. They are very sociable and prefer to create herds based mostly on familial relationships. Herds usually consist of ewes, their lambs, and juvenile sheep. The male urials typically form their own herds. Herds can reach sizes of over a hundred individuals and tend to reduce around spring and summer time.

Dominance plays a large role in the social structure of urials. The rules of dominance tend to favor whoever has the larger body size. When it comes to male urials, the dominating males are usually the ones who have larger horns. It is hierarchal – the bigger the horn, the higher up in rank the ram is.

The importance of maintaining this social structure is that the authoritative males stop the younger males from bullying the female urials. Urials of the same size can be aggressive toward each other, and accomplish this with front kicks and head twists. They do not stand up on their hind legs when they are fighting.

Urials are diurnal animals which means they are usually active during the day and less active at night during rest. They are not territorial animals, but they do move within their range. They make use of cavities in cliffs or grassy slopes for shelter.

Urials often rest underneath shrubs.

Diet

Urials are herbivorous animals. Their main diet consists of grasses, shrubs, and grains. They also eat tree leaves and bushes if grasses are unavailable. Urials forage at crop fields as well.

Urials have been observed consuming at least 26 different plant species. These sheep are bovines, thus, they are ruminant animals. They possess a four-chambered stomach and “chew the cud.”

Habitat and Population

Urials are Asiatic sheep with origins in Afghanistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the Himalayas, and Uzbekistan. They have also been introduced in Oman. These sheep inhabit forests, open woodland, grassland, shrubland, rocky cliffs, and montane regions. They prefer the gentle, grassy slopes as opposed to the rocky parts of mountains. Urials live in regions of elevation up to 4,500 meters or 14,763 feet.

The urial population is decreasing and the species is listed as vulnerable, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Transcaspian and Bukharan urials are listed as critically endangered and endangered respectively.

The total global population of the urial is estimated to be around 30,000 animals with 18,000 mature individuals. Urials are threatened due to many factors such as poaching, habitat degradation, range loss, overgrazing by livestock, and disease transmission.

Reproduction and Lifespan

Urial sheep practice polygyny wherein a male mates with multiple females. Female urials typically reach sexual maturity at the age of a year and a half, and give birth to their first young at two years old. They reach full maturity at age eight.

Depending on the location of their habitat, the urial mating season typically begins any time from September to November and continues to December. The male urials, or rams, usually live in their own herds. However, once the mating season begins, they choose about four to five females, or ewes, to mate with. These ewes gestate for a period of about five months and may separate themselves from the herd once their gestation period draws to a close. They usually give birth to one lamb, but older ewes are known to birth up to three.

After giving birth to her lamb, the ewe and her offspring tend to live apart from the herd for a short duration of three to seven days. During this time, the lamb becomes stronger. They return to the herd where the lamb continues to nurse from its mother until it reaches independence in around five or six months. The lambs start to eat solid food bit by bit after about a month.

Urials typically live up to eight to twelve years in the wild, with the average maximum lifespan being eleven years.

Predators and Threats

Urials have many natural predators, typical of herd animals. These predators are typically large carnivores and include snow leopards, wolves, golden eagles, and shepherd dogs. The eagles and dogs mostly go after the lambs in the herd because they are much smaller than the bigger animals. Urials are well-equipped to handle most instances of predation by chasing the predator away or kicking at them en masse.

Urials also face other threats, mostly environmental. They are classified as a vulnerable species and some of the subspecies are endangered and critically endangered on their own. Urials are mostly threatened by poaching. They also have to compete with livestock for grazing land and forage.

Urials would have had some measure of protection against predator attacks and poaching if they inhabited the rocky parts of mountainous regions, but they avoid those parts. Their contact with livestock such as domesticated sheep and goats also puts them at risk of contracting infectious diseases from these animals.

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About the Author

Hi! I am a writer, actor, and filmmaker. Reading is my favorite hobby. Watching old movies and taking short naps are a close second and third. I have been writing since childhood, with a vast collection of handwritten books sealed away in a duffel bag somewhere in my room. I love fiction, especially fantasy and adventure. I recently won the James Currey Prize 2022, so now, naturally, I feel like I own words. When I was 11, I wanted to be a marine biologist because I love animals, particularly dogs, cats, and owls. I also enjoy potatoes and chocolate in all their glorious forms.

Urial FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What do urials eat?

Urials are herbivorous animals. They mostly eat grasses, shrubs, grains, tree leaves and bushes.

How big are urial horns?

Urial horns are large and they curl outward. Male urial horns can grow up to 3.3 feet long and are much larger than the horns of the female.

What are some distinctive features of urials?

Urials have a distinctive long, reddish-brown coat which fades during the colder winter. Their prominent horns are also pretty distinctive. The males also have white beards.

Where do urials come from?

Urials are Asiatic sheep with origins in Afghanistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the Himalayas, and Uzbekistan. They have also been introduced in Oman

What is the difference between urials and sheep?

Sheep are classified under the genus Ovis, which urials (Ovis vignei) belong to. Therefore, urials are simply a species of sheep. Urials, however, are wild sheep. Most sheep you probably know are domesticated. Urials are actually the oldest line of the Ovis genus, and the ancestors to the modern-day domesticated sheep.

Why are urials endangered?

The urial population is endangered due to many factors such as poaching, habitat degradation, range loss, overgrazing by livestock, and disease transmission.

What eats urials?

These predators are typically large carnivores and include snow leopards, wolves, golden eagles, and shepherd dogs. The eagles and dogs mostly go after the lambs in the herd because they are much smaller than the bigger animals.

Does the urial have other names?

Urials are also called shapo or arkhar in their native regions in Asia.

To what Kingdom do urials belong?

Urials belong to the kingdom Animalia.

To what phylum do urials belong?

Urials belong to the phylum Chordata.

To what class do urials belong?

Urials belong to the class Mammalia.

To what order do urials belong?

Urials are members of the order, Artiodactyla, along with other even-toed hoofed animals.

To what family do urials belong?

Urials belong to the family Bovidae.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/animal/urial
  2. IUCN Red List, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/54940655/195296049#assessment-information
  3. Rezaei, Hamid R., et al., Available here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/38074290_Evolution_and_taxonomy_of_the_wild_species_of_the_genus_Ovis_Mammalia_Artiodactyla_Bovidae
  4. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urial
  5. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ovis#:~:text=Ovis%20is%20a%20genus%20of,of%20central%20and%20southwest%20Asia.

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