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An Ultimate Ungulate Fact Sheet
Subfamily Caprinae
Sheep, goats, and relatives
The Caprinae is one of the most successful bovid subfamilies, with 35 currently recognized species found in mountainous regions across Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. Their success is due to a generalized form with specializations for montane habitats, a combination which confers flexibility within the alpine biome. The Caprinae tend to be medium-sized ungulates, with a compact form, thick legs, a sure-footed nature, and tolerance of extremes in temperature which occur in mountainous environments.

The Caprinae diverged from the other Aegodontia in the early Miocene, appearing in the Eurasian fossil record 18-15 million years ago. The Caprinae were excluded from the Eurasian lowland habitats by the dominant Cervidae (deer), but were able to fill a specific niche in alpine habitats. The prevalence of mountains throughout Europe and Asia provided the perfect setting for the rapid evolution of the Caprinae during the late Miocene. The lack of alpine habitat in Africa (and the abundance of mountains in Eurasia) explains why this is the only bovid subfamily to be significantly more diverse in Eurasia than Africa.

Despite being nested deeply within the Aegodontia, the Caprinae is the only subfamily which is not seen as containing "antelope" (with the exception of the chiru or Tibetan antelope, Pantholops hodgsonii); in an attempt to correct this, some authors chose to describe the members of this subfamily as "goat antelope".

There are four currently recognized tribes in this subfamily:

  1. Pantholopini - chiru
  2. Ovibovini - musk ox and takin
  3. Rupicaprini - gorals, serows, and chamois
  4. Caprini - sheep, goats, and tahrs

The position of the chiru (Pantholops hodgsonii) has only recently been resolved. Formerly, this species was thought to ally closely with the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) in the tribe Saigini, forming a putative link between gazelles (Antilopinae) and goats (Caprinae). However, molecular testing has determined that Saiga is distinctly antelopine, while Pantholops is distinctly goat-like. Some authors consider the chiru to be distinct enough to warrant placing it in a separate subfamily, the Pantholopinae.

Generally both sexes of the Caprinae bear horns (except in the tribe Pantholopini, where they are only found in males). There is extreme sexual dimorphism in the Caprini - this is especially prevalent in the size and shape of the horns. The other tribes show very few differences between the sexes with regard to size, coloration, and horn size.

The Caprinae Family Tree
Branch lengths are not proportional to time
(From Hernandez-Fernandez and Vrba, 2005; Ropiquet and Hassanin, 2005)


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Pantholops hodgsonii

Naemorhedus baileyi

Naemorhedus caudatus

Naemorhedus goral

Naemorhedus griseus

Capricornis sumatraensis

Capricornis milneedwardsii

Capricornis rubidus

Capricornis thar

Capricornis swinhoei

Capricornis crispus

Oreamnos americanus

Rupicapra pyrenaica

Rupicapra rupicapra

Budorcas taxicolor

Ovibos moschatus

Nilgiritragus hylocrius

Ovis ammon

Ovis orientalis

Ovis nivicola

Ovis canadensis

Ovis dalli

Ammotragus lervia

Arabitragus jayakari

Pseudois nayaur

Pseudois schaeferi

Hemitragus jemlahicus

Capra walie

Capra sibirica

Capra ibex

Capra nubiana

Capra falconeri

Capra aegagrus

Capra cylindricornis

Capra caucasica

Capra pyrenaica

Click on the species above to learn more,
or jump to the Caprinae Species List
Literature Cited

Estes, R. D. 1991. The Behavior Guide to African Mammals: including hoofed mammals, carnivores, primates. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Hernandez-Fernandez, M., and E. S. Vrba. 2005. A complete estimate of the phylogenetic relationships in Ruminantia: a dated species-level supertree of the extant ruminants. Biological Review; 80: 269-302.

Kingdon, J. 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press, London and New York: NaturalWorld.

Ropiquet, A., and A. Hassanin. 2005. Molecular evidence for the polyphyly of the genus Hemitragus (Mammalia, Bovidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution; 36: 154-168.

Vrba, E. S., and G. B. Schaller. 2000. Phylogeny of Bovidae based on behavior, glands, skulls, and postcrania. In Antelopes, Deer, and Relatives. Edited by E.S.Vrba and G.B.Schaller. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. pp. 203-222.