What’s not a goat or a sheep, but belongs to the goat-sheep created kind? The aoudad (pronounced OW-dad) sheep! Also known as Barbary sheep, these animals resemble mountain goats, but are neither true sheep nor true goats. They belong to their own genus, as half of their genetics are sheep-like and half are goat-like. However, because they can hybridize with goats, we know they still belong to the caprine (goat-sheep) kind. They both graze like sheep and browse forbs and shrubs like goats.
The aoudad’s scientific name Ammotragus lervia comes from the Greek ammos meaning “sand” and tragos meaning “sheep.” Lervia comes from the term “lerwee” which was used to describe wild sheep in northern Africa. Since aoudads come from the rocky hills of northwestern Africa where their sandy coloration camouflages them from predators, the name is perfect! The word “aoudad” is the name used for this species by the Berbers, a people group native to northern Africa. There are six subspecies of aoudad sheep, all of which are vulnerable, with the Egyptian being nearly extinct in the wild. Although declining in their native habitat due to habitat loss, hunting, and invasive species, they have been successfully introduced for hunting purposes in the southwest United States, Mexico, Hawaii, Canary Islands, and southeast Spain. They’ve been so successful in the US that they’re considered invasive and are outcompeting the endangered desert bighorn sheep.
Males are striking in appearance with long manes of hair that cover their throats, chests, and front legs. They can stand up to 40 inches at the shoulder and weigh up to 310 pounds! Males also have massive, curved horns reaching 33 inches in length and 7 inches in diameter. Females are smaller and have shorter manes and horns. Males are called rams or bucks; females are called ewes or does; and babies are called lambs or kids. And a group of aoudad sheep is called an “anger!”
“The high mountains are for the wild goats,” as Psalm 104:18 says. Aoudads are expert climbers and can easily ascend cliffs far too steep for humans and other animals. They can achieve standing jumps of over seven feet! They can produce metabolic water and survive for long periods of time without drinking. They are well adapted to survive both heat and cold. Aoudad sheep travel constantly in search of food in their barren habitats, so they lead an extremely nomadic lifestyle. Aoudads were once the mascot of the Spanish Legion, but they have been replaced by their relatives, the domestic goats.
The Ararat Ridge Zoo is home to four female aoudad sheep: Rachel, Sarah, Zipporah, and Noel. Noel was a surprise baby, born at the Ark Encounter on the winter solstice in 2020. She had to be raised by zoo staff and a surrogate mother, a domestic goat named Dinah. Dinah had lots of experience raising her own kids, so she did an excellent job teaching Noel how to be a “goat,” while her human caretakers ensured she was comfortable with people. Once Noel grew up and was reintroduced to the adults, she helped them overcome their skittish natures and trust their trainers more. Now, our aoudad sheep enjoy training and have learned to participate in their own healthcare! Noel still thinks she’s part human though and loves to go for walks in the zoo and spend time with her keepers.