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Ovis Diversity.jpg
There are 7 species of Ovis.
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Caprinae
Tribe: Caprini
Genus: Ovis
Linnaeus, 1758
Type species
Ovis aries

See text.

Ovis is a genus of mammals, part of the Caprinae subfamily of the ruminant family Bovidae. [1] Its seven highly sociable species are known as sheep or ovines. Domestic sheep are members of the genus, and are thought to be descended from the wild mouflon of central and southwest Asia.



Female sheep are called ewes, males are called rams or less frequently bucks or tups, neutered males are called wethers, and young sheep are called lambs. The adjective applying to sheep is ovine, and the collective term for sheep is flock or mob. The term herd is also occasionally used in this sense, generally for large flocks. Many specialist terms relating to domestic sheep are used.


Sheep are fairly small compared to other ungulates; in most species, adults weigh less than 100 kg (220 lb). [2] Males are usually heavier than females by a significant amount. Wild sheep are mostly found in hilly or mountainous habitats. Their diets consist mainly of grasses, as well as other plants and lichens. Like other ruminants, they have four-chambered stomachs, which play a vital role in digesting food; they eructate, and rechew the cud to enable them to digest and live on low-quality, rough plant materials. Sheep conserve water well, and can live in fairly dry environments.

The bodies of wild sheep (and some domestic breeds) are covered by a coat of thick hair to protect them from cold. This coat contains long, stiff hairs, called kemps, over a short, woolly undercoat, which grows in autumn and is shed in spring. [3] This woolly undercoat has been developed in many domestic sheep breeds into a fleece of long wool, with selection against kemp hairs in these breeds. The fleece covers the body (in a few breeds also the face and legs) and is used for fibre. Domestic sheep are also reared for their milk and meat (which is called lamb or mutton depending on the age of the animal).

In wild sheep, both rams and ewes have horns, while in domestic sheep (depending upon breed) horns may be present in both rams and ewes, in rams only, or in neither. Rams' horns may be very large – those of a mature bighorn ram can weigh 14 kg (31 lb) – as much as the bones of the rest of its body put together. Rams use their horns to fight with each other for dominance and the right to mate with females. In most cases, they do not injure each other because they hit each other head-to-head, and their curved horns do not strike each other's bodies. They are also protected by having very thick skin and double-layered skulls. [4]

Wild sheep have very keen senses of sight and hearing. When detecting predators, wild sheep most often flee, usually to higher ground, but they can also fight back. The Dall sheep has been known to butt wolves off the face of cliffs. [4]

Sheep have scent glands on their faces and feet. Communication through the scent glands is not well understood, but is thought to be important for sexual signaling. Males can smell females that are in estrus, and rams mark their territories by rubbing scent on rocks.


Seven species (and numerous subspecies) of sheep are currently recognized. The main recognized divisions are: [1]

Argali Stuffed specimen.jpg Ovis ammon Argali
Ovis orientalis aries 'Skudde' (aka).jpg Ovis aries [5] Domestic sheep
Ovis canadensis 2.jpg Ovis canadensis Bighorn sheep
2005 04 27 1582 Dall Sheep.jpg Ovis dalli Dall sheep
Armenian2.jpg Ovis gmelini Mouflon
Ovis nivicola (=O. canadensis nivicola) by Joseph Smit.jpg Ovis nivicola Snow sheep
Ovis ammon vignei arkal Pretoria 3.jpg Ovis vignei Urial


Sheep are social animals and live in groups, called flocks. This helps them to avoid predators and stay warm in cold weather by huddling together. Flocks of sheep need to keep moving to find new grazing areas and more favourable weather as the seasons change. In each flock, a sheep, usually a mature ram, is followed by the others. [3] This "leader to follower" relationship can be both a positive and negative for flocks of Ovis aries. Although there is safety in numbers, it has been reported that the following of one mature ram can bring flocks to slaughter in many situations where the mature ram misguides the flock. [6] [7]


Sheep Faroesheeps.jpg

Mating in sheep is characterized by males competing for females in estrus. [8] Social rank in rams is established by male-male competition, known as the rut. [9] Females select from dominant males based on sexually selected characteristics such as body size and horn size, as those traits are desirable in offspring.

Females typically are separated from males outside the rut, but during the rut, females and males are found together. [9] Females that are oestrous isolate themselves from other ewes, and may be less mobile. [9] The rut is also linked with different ewe behaviour than during nonrutting periods. [9] These changes are characterized by decreased feeding, increased time observing their surroundings, and increased behaviour changes. [9] Ewes are also predicted to be slightly receptive to the displays of the rams. [9]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Caprinae</span> Subfamily of mammals

The subfamily Caprinae, also sometimes referred to as the tribe Caprini, is part of the ruminant family Bovidae, and consists of mostly medium-sized bovids. A member of this subfamily is called a caprine, or, more informally, a goat-antelope.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bovidae</span> Family of mammals belonging to even-toed ungulates

The Bovidae comprise the biological family of cloven-hoofed, ruminant mammals that includes cattle, bison, buffalo, antelopes, and goat-antelopes. A member of this family is called a bovid. With 143 extant species and 300 known extinct species, the family Bovidae consists of 11 major subfamilies and thirteen major tribes. The family evolved 20 million years ago, in the early Miocene.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mouflon</span> Species group of the wild sheep

The mouflon is a wild sheep native to the Caspian region from eastern Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. It is thought to be the ancestor of all modern domestic sheep breeds.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bighorn sheep</span> Species of sheep native to North America

The bighorn sheep is a species of sheep native to North America. It is named for its large horns. A pair of horns might weigh up to 14 kg (30 lb); the sheep typically weigh up to 143 kg (315 lb). Recent genetic testing indicates three distinct subspecies of Ovis canadensis, one of which is endangered: O. c. sierrae.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dall sheep</span> Species of mammal

Ovis dalli, also known as the Dall sheep or thinhorn sheep, is a species of wild sheep native to northwestern North America. Ovis dalli contains two subspecies: Ovis dalli dalli and Ovis dalli stonei. O. dalli live in mountainous alpine habitats distributed across northwestern British Columbia, the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska. They browse a variety of plants such as grasses, sedges and even shrubs such as willow, during different times of the year. They also acquire minerals to supplement their diet from mineral licks. Like other Ovis species, the rams engage in dominance contests with their horns.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Manx Loaghtan</span> Breed of sheep

The Manx Loaghtan is a rare breed of sheep native to the Isle of Man. It is sometimes spelled as Loaghtyn or Loghtan. The sheep have dark brown wool and usually four or occasionally six horns.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Soay sheep</span> Scottish breed of sheep

The Soay sheep is a breed of domestic sheep descended from a population of feral sheep on the 100-hectare (250-acre) island of Soay in the St Kilda Archipelago, about 65 kilometres (40 mi) from the Western Isles of Scotland. It is one of the Northern European short-tailed sheep breeds.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Argali</span> Species of sheep

The argali, also known as the mountain sheep, is a wild sheep that roams the highlands of western East Asia, the Himalayas, Tibet, and the Altai Mountains.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Navajo-Churro</span> North American sheep breed

The Navajo-Churro, or Churro for short, is a breed of domestic sheep originating with the Spanish Churra sheep obtained by Navajo, Hopi and other Native American nations around the 16th century during the Spanish Conquest. The breed is renowned for its hardiness and adaptability to extremes of climate. Its wool consists of a protective topcoat and soft undercoat. Some rams have four fully developed horns, a trait shared with few other breeds in the world. The Navajo-Churro has also gained popularity for its low-maintenance reputation, resistance to disease, and lean meat. Some say they are very personable. Ewes often birth twins. This breed is raised primarily for wool.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shropshire sheep</span> Breed of sheep

The Shropshire breed of domestic sheep originated from the hills of Shropshire, and North Staffordshire, England, during the 1840s. The breeders in the area used the local horned black-faced sheep and crossed them with a few breeds of white-faced sheep. This produced a medium-sized polled (hornless) sheep that produced good wool and meat. In 1855 the first Shropshires were imported into the United States (Virginia). This breed is raised primarily for meat.

A sheep–goat hybrid is the offspring of a sheep and a goat. While sheep and goats are similar and can be mated, they belong to different genera in the subfamily Caprinae of the family Bovidae. Sheep belong to the genus Ovis and have 54 chromosomes, while goats belong to the genus Capra and have 60 chromosomes. The offspring of a sheep–goat pairing is generally stillborn. Despite widespread shared pasturing of goats and sheep, hybrids are very rare, indicating the genetic distance between the two species. They are not to be confused with sheep–goat chimera, which are artificially created by combining the embryos of a goat and a sheep.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marco Polo sheep</span> Subspecies of argali sheep

The Marco Polo sheep is a subspecies of argali sheep, named after Marco Polo. Their habitat are the mountainous regions of Central Asia. Marco Polo sheep are distinguishable mostly by their large size and spiraling horns. Their conservation status is "near threatened" and efforts have been made to protect their numbers and keep them from being hunted. It has also been suggested that crossing them with domestic sheep could have agricultural benefits.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wiltshire Horn</span> Breed of sheep

The Wiltshire Horn is a breed of domestic sheep originally from Wiltshire in southern England raised for meat. The breed is unusual among native British breeds, for it has the unusual feature of moulting its short wool and hair coat naturally in spring, obviating the need for shearing. They are good mothers and have high fertility.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">St. Croix sheep</span> Breed of sheep

The St Croix is a breed of domestic sheep native to the U.S. Virgin Islands and named for the island of Saint Croix. They are often also called Virgin Island White because those that were imported into North America were selected for white coloration. On the Island of St. Croix, they come in shades of brown, white and black.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Domestic sheep reproduction</span> Reproduction of sheep

Domestic sheep reproduce sexually much like other mammals, and their reproductive strategy is furthermore very similar to other domestic herd animals. A flock of sheep is generally mated by a single ram, which has either been chosen by a farmer or has established dominance through physical contest with other rams. Most sheep have a breeding season (tupping) in the autumn, though some are able to breed year-round.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sheep</span> Domesticated ruminant bred for meat, wool, and milk

Sheep or domestic sheep are domesticated, ruminant mammals typically kept as livestock. Although the term sheep can apply to other species in the genus Ovis, in everyday usage it almost always refers to domesticated sheep. Like all ruminants, sheep are members of the order Artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates. Numbering a little over one billion, domestic sheep are also the most numerous species of sheep. An adult female is referred to as a ewe, an intact male as a ram, occasionally a tup, a castrated male as a wether, and a young sheep as a lamb.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Goat</span> Domesticated mammal (Capra hircus)

The goat or domestic goat is a domesticated species of goat-antelope typically kept as livestock. It was domesticated from the wild goat of Southwest Asia and Eastern Europe. The goat is a member of the animal family Bovidae and the tribe Caprini, meaning it is closely related to the sheep. There are over 300 distinct breeds of goat. It is one of the oldest domesticated species of animal, according to archaeological evidence that its earliest domestication occurred in Iran at 10,000 calibrated calendar years ago.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dalesbred</span> Breed of sheep

The Dalesbred is a breed of domestic sheep originating in England. Derived from the Swaledale and Scottish Blackface breeds, the Dalesbred is a northern hill breed distributed in the Yorkshire Dales and into Lancashire. The Dalesbred is genetically distinct from the other northern hill breeds, the Herdwick and Rough Fell.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polled Dorset</span> American breed of sheep

The Polled Dorset is an American breed of domestic sheep. It is a polled (hornless) variant of the British Dorset Horn. It was developed at the North Carolina State University Small Ruminant Unit in the 1950s after a genetic mutation led to the birth of a polled ram. After some years of breeding work, a true-breeding polled strain was established.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bovidae in Chinese mythology</span>

Bovidae in Chinese mythology include various myths and legends about a group of biologically distinct animals which form important motifs within Chinese mythology. There are many myths about the animals modernly classified as Bovidae, referring to oxen, sheep, goats, and mythological types such as "unicorns". Chinese mythology refers to those myths found in the historical geographic area of China, a geographic area which has evolved or changed somewhat through history. Thus this includes myths in Chinese and other languages, as transmitted by Han Chinese as well as other ethnic groups. There are various motifs of animals of the Bovidae biological family in Chinese mythology. These have often served as allusions in poetry and other literature. Some species are also used in the traditional Chinese calendar and time-keeping system.


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