Takins: Strange, mountain-dwelling mammals with mythical golden fleeces

The golden takin (B. taxicolor bedfordi) may have inspired the golden fleece of Greek mythology. (Image credit: Vladislav T. Jirousek/Shutterstock)

Name: Takin (Budorcas taxicolor); four subspecies: Bhutan takin (B. taxicolor whitei); golden takin (B. taxicolor bedfordi); Mishmi takin (B. taxicolor taxicolor); and Sichuan takin (B. taxicolor tibetana)

Where it lives: Alpine zones and forested valleys in Asia, ranging through areas of Bhutan, Myanmar, northern India, central and southern China and Tibet

What it eats: Seasonally available vegetation, particularly leaves from trees and shrubs. It will also feed on grasses and forbs. In winter it will eat tender twigs when its preferred food is not available.

Why it's awesome: Takins are bizarre-looking bovids — relatives of cows, sheep, goats and other cloven-hooved mammals. They have moose-like noses and short, stumpy legs supporting large, stocky bodies. Both sexes have wildebeest-like horns, which emerge from the crown of their head and curve upward.

Their smelly, shaggy fur ranges from gray-brown to reddish or chocolate brown, depending on the subspecies. Perhaps most strikingly, the pelt of the golden takin is, as its name suggests, a lambent golden color. The golden takins may have inspired the golden fleece of Greek mythology. In the tale, adventurer Jason is sent on a quest to recover the fleece, taken from a winged ram sired by Zeus, in order to claim the throne that had been usurped from his father.

Related: Bison are being introduced to the Russian Arctic to replace extinct woolly mammoths. But why?

Takins live in mountainous environments in Asia, traveling up and down the slopes in search of  food. Their specially adapted split hooves help them traverse the steep, rocky terrain. 

In the summer, when food is plentiful and mating takes place, takins form herds of up to 300 individuals, but they then split into smaller groups of around 15 to 30 animals in the winter months. Herds are largely female; males are solitary except in breeding season. 

Males spray urine over their legs, chests and faces, perhaps as an olfactory indicator of dominance.

Takins have few predators, though snow leopards may take calves, while leopards, tigers, wolves and Asiatic black bears occasionally prey on adults. When they sense danger, takins warn the herd with a coughing sound, sending the others fleeing into the underbrush where they lie down and hide. 

All subspecies are considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — and recent research suggests that their range may be smaller than previously estimated, potentially meaning these goat-like mash-ups are at greater risk than we know. 

Richard Pallardy
Live Science Contributor

Richard Pallardy is a freelance science writer based in Chicago. He has written for such publications as National GeographicScience MagazineNew Scientist, and Discover Magazine