Meet the Takin: The Largest Mammal You’ve Never Heard Of

Takin, Tangjiahe Nature Reserve, Sichuan, China. Photo © Jean-Marie Hullot / Flickr through a CC BY 2.0 license

It looks like a creature Luke Skywalker might ride en route to saving the galaxy, but the takin is not a fictional beast. Let’s take a look at this large, mysterious mammal that roams Asian mountains and bamboo thickets.

A frequent conservation complaint is that most people only know and care about the largest and most charismatic of creatures: the elephants and giraffes, the lions and tigers and bears. Most of the world’s species remain ignored. Conservationists are forced to admit that few know or love the great diversity of invertebrates, microbes and fungi that share our planet.

In reality, even many of the largest mammals remain out of sight and out of mind. The takin – which can reach weights up to 770 pounds (350 kg) – is arguably the largest terrestrial mammal that lives in obscurity. While it is the national mammal of Bhutan, you are unlikely to find it in a cartoon, as a sports mascot or in a popular nature documentary.

What is a takin? First, a little taxonomy. It’s in the mammalian family Bovidae that also includes antelopes, oxen, sheep and goats, among others. The bovids include some of the most familiar animals on earth, including common barnyard animals like cattle. Wild bovids like bison and wildebeest are also widely recognized.

Sichuan takin kid. Photo © Ted / Flickr through a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

But despite being incredibly cool and even beautiful (at least to me), many of these hoofed mammals remain obscure. The wonderful variety of African antelopes – kudu and eland and duiker – play background roles in documentaries, if they appear at all. A Twitter feed and game by biologist Matt Davis, Underrated Ungulate, seeks to bring attention to many of these species.

If there’s any hoofed mammal that deserves the limelight, it’s the wildly bizarre takin. Almost any writer and even biologist confronting the takin seems to describe it as a creature composed by assembling parts of other animals. Many accounts describe it a creation of Dr. Seuss. Taxonomists call it a “goat antelope” and others call it a “gnu goat.” Even famed biologist George Schaller describes it as a “bee-stung moose” due to its super-sized schnoz.

There’s nothing else quite like it. It probably most closely resembles a less-shaggy musk ox, but it actually is more closely related to wild sheep.

Takin (Budorcas taxicolor). Photograph entered in the 2008 Green Olympic Photo Contest. Photo © Deng Jianxin

The takin is adapted to its mountainous environment in Asia. While its range includes many countries – including parts of India, Bhutan and Myanmar – most naturalists and hard-core mammal watchers encounter the species in China. Strangely enough, there it shares its range with one of the most beloved and well-known of large mammals, the giant panda. In fact, one of the first documented instances of a giant panda eating meat is trail camera footage of one of the fuzzy critters noshing on a takin carcass.

Despite its bulk, the takin moves easily down steep mountain slopes and through thick bamboo forests. That big nose helps it navigate the cold, high-elevation air. The San Diego Zoo (the first zoo to exhibit takins in North America) reports that the “large, moose-like snout has big sinus cavities to warm up the air inhaled before it gets to the lungs. Without this adaptation, takins would lose a large amount of body heat just by breathing.”

The takin lacks skin glands but according to the excellent Princeton Field Guides Bovids of the World, “their skin secretes an oily, bitter-tasting substance that acts as a natural raincoat in storms and fog. Streaks of this oily stuff can be seen where Takins rub.” The biologist Valerius Geist describes this oil as having a “burning taste.” I’m intrigued that takin experts know the taste of this oil. That’s dedication.

Male takins also spray various body parts with urine, including their faces, to advertise status. All this oil and urine suggests that the takin would not be a good candidate for petting zoos.

Takin coloration varies by habitat and subspecies (some taxonomists consider four subspecies to be separate species, but that’s an argument for another day). The most striking is the golden takin, a truly remarkable animal. A frequent claim on the blogosphere is that this golden pelt is the basis for the “golden fleece” of myth and legend. As science writer Darren Naish notes, there are other explanations for golden fleece, but no one can argue that the golden takin does indeed look like a creature from myth.

Takins eat a large variety of plants (one biologist counted 65 species in a Bhutan takin’s diet), including such seemingly unpalatable forage as rhododendron and evergreen trees. Takins travel trails to salt licks, which undoubtedly provide minerals but may also help neutralize plant toxins.

Wildlife research often is determined by the public’s interests and values. Elephants, tigers and white-tailed deer are thus heavily researched; takins much less so. Undoubtedly there is much to learn about these animals. Many accounts reference large male takins being aggressive, but this seems based as much on appearance as evidence.

Takins head butting. Photo © Valerie Everett / Wikimedia Commons through a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

A reporter for National Wildlife witnessed male takins butting heads in a dramatic courtship battle, seemingly much like bighorn sheep. Male takins also vocalize during this time, and female and young takins have their own loud vocalizations. These are usually considered alarm calls. Research into the takin’s larynx reveals that the takin’s vocalizations are low frequency, ideal for projecting a call over long distances.

Many sources, including trip reports by amateur naturalists, report large herds of 50 or more takins congregating in the spring – likely family groups. Males may also gather in herds prior to the rut. As takins get older, they seem to become more solitary.

Throughout much of its range, the takin is endangered or vulnerable, largely due to habitat loss. In 2013, The Nature Conservancy in China initiated the 27,325-acre Laohegou Land Trust Reserve, the first such reserve in China. It links existing reserves, protecting important habitat for takins and other wildlife (including giant pandas).

A takin herd, Gongshan Derung and Nu Autonomous County, Yunnan, China. Photo © By Claire liy / Wikimedia Commons through a CC BY-SA 3.0 license

Hoofed mammals have been one of my longest and happiest obsessions. As a lifelong hunter, naturalist and mammal life lister, I find myself drawn to these large and often unappreciated beasts. Sometimes when I mention this passion to other conservationists, I get a response like “Don’t we know enough about the big creatures?”

A simple mention of the takin proves otherwise. Fortunately, stumping for hoofed mammals is not as difficult as advocating for moths or sea cucumbers. A growing network of rewilding advocates, weird wildlife enthusiasts and mammal watchers brings attention to the overlooked hoofed beasts.

I was thrilled this holiday season when my animal-obsessed nephew Noah, upon seeing a photo of a takin, immediately identified it (and he also recognized tarsiers, mandrills, and other obscure critters that even most of my conservation colleagues would not know. He has a bright future ahead as a mammal watcher).

I’d be as excited to see a large herd of takins emerging from a thicket of bamboo as I would be to see a giant panda. I’m serious. If you’re with me, welcome to the Ungulate Underground. Let’s work together to ensure that takins and other awesome, bizarre hoofed beasts continue to roam the world’s wild regions.

Takin at Minnesota Zoo. Photo © Justin / Flickr through a CC BY-SA 2.0 license
Matthew L. Miller

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matthew L.

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  1. It’s interesting that only about a week ago I saw these animals (Takins) for the first time on one of the National Geographic TV channels. I was amazed that such a beautiful mammal has not been in more media coverage. I am 66 years old and a Nature ‘freak’ yet this animal left me a little confused that Nature still has so many secrets for us to find!!!

  2. I loved the article, I don’t think that I have ever heard of this animal. I like his face, he looks like our cows looked on the farm. Thank you it is always good to learn something new

  3. Love the idea of an ungulate underground, Matt! Would be amazing to see takin in the wild. Hurray for TNC working to protect its habitat.

  4. Loved your article about takins. I love animals and therefore fascinated when I find one I have never heard of or seen. I feel all forms of animal life must be preserved for us to survive.

  5. Some would refer to me at an animal watching nerd with plenty of boring party talk. Thanks Matthew. I’ve never heard of the takin, but I’ll passing it on.

  6. In my Art of Paying Attention series, I tend to draw and write about the local critters that people can meet right around their homes in the Southwest–except for the piece about gators, who I met often in Florida.
    Here’s a beast so fascinating and sweet-faced that is the national animal of Bhutan. Makes sense to me, since “Gross National Happiness is a philosophy that guides the government of Bhutan. It includes an index which is used to measure the collective happiness and well-being of a population.” (Wikipedia)

  7. I just learn about something new, which is my goal for each day. I watched PBS’s “Exotic Animals” last night and the takin could very easily be in this category.
    I also enjoyed your article’s humor. The description using Dr. Seuss’s creations was my favorite.
    The world is a wonder and full of wonder and I hope it makes it…..I hope we make it
    Thank you for this lesson on animals I don’t know

  8. Fascinating article and animal! Sign me up as a member of the Ungulate Underground. I’m a fan of all wild places and wild creatures.

  9. Great article. I saw them at the Wuppertal Zoo in Germany years ago. They are awesome. Please tell your nephew that birds are even more amazing!!!

  10. I’ve never before heard of, or seen a picture of, or even read abut the Takin. Thank you!

  11. I first met the Takin in the Bronx zoo…yes the Bronx zoo in the late 1970’s. They have remained my favorite mammal.

  12. Really amazing animal – it must be wonderful to see them in the wild. Their species may be safer the more unknown they are!! The more species of animals the better.

  13. Thank you for this wonderful article. We are too focused on a relatively small % of the wild animals for preservation. Hopefully, the more animals we know about, the more determined we will be to preserve their habitats. I am grateful you have introduced the Takin to me.

  14. Big mammals are pretty cool, but the small ones, including bats and rodents, are even cooler for some of us who have studied them. Let’s keep ALL of the pieces.

  15. well written! I like hoofed animals more than big cats or pandas for example 😀 I love their looks and how different they are. There are so many antelopes, deer and other hoofed mammals, it never gets boring.

  16. Great essay on a little known beast.Should help conservation. By the way, I didn’t know China had land trusts, although I suppose an international group such as TNC is behind it.

  17. Very interesting and surprising.Good luck on your studies with Takins.


    Brenda Dyer

  18. In all the years that I have watched Animal Planet and NatGeo…I have never seen one of these! They are very cool! Thanks for introducing us to them!

  19. Thank you for bringing this animal to light. It shows how ignorant we really are about the diversity of life and what we have to lose.

  20. My husband and I were recently enchanted by the takin at the MN zoo. They reminded me of mountain goats in the way they moved.

  21. Only this–they are so beautiful! (I won’t mention that the gorgeous gold takin’s fur bears a remarkable resemblance to a certain prominent political figure’s hair). Thanks for bringing these to our attention.

  22. Thanks for this. I, too, am a lifelong (amateur) naturalist and outdoor enthusiast. I grew up on a farm/ranch in Central Texas, where our major cash crops were cattle, sheep, and goats, but heretofore had never heard of a takin. Fascinating creatures, all.

  23. Nice article about an animal I never have heard of but sure am glad to now know about. So many creatures on this earth that we humans are using up and ruining the climate.

  24. What a beautiful animal! I’m so excited you have the information on your site about the Takin, I myself had never heard of or knew anything about the Takin. Thank you so much for this story and more to choose me

  25. Great and interesting article. Thank you for introducing me to this mammal. I had no idea such a critter existed, and I’ve been a nature lover and on this earth for 73 years.

  26. Hi Matthew,

    I enjoyed your article immensely and have long admired the takin. By next year, visitors to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium will be able to view these interesting animals. The zoo in Berlin (eastern area) holds and breeds three species including the golden takin, sichuan takin, and mishmi takin.

    Thanks again for highlighting this interesting species. I have smelled the oil from their fur on my hands but have yet to taste it. Nasty smell! I would love to see them in the wild some day.


  27. Thank you for sharing this most interesting article about the takin, which I never heard of. Keep up the commendable work that you do.


  28. This is very interesting and I wonder if these takins are cross-bred as they do appear and act like goats and sheep . Do you ever do DNA tests on animals?

    1. Takins are a separate species, not a hybrid of domestic animals. Genetic tests reveal they are most closely related to other “goat-antelopes” including other species that are also relatively little known and “underrated”: serow, chamois and mountain goat among them.

  29. The Wilds, a conservation center in rural southeastern Ohio, has a program to help stabilize the Takin! We saw them during a summer tour of this center.

  30. how interesting – i have never heard or seen this animal!
    yes – the takin is beautiful! no doubt !
    but thank you for informing me – i appreciate it.

  31. I am also a” ungulatephiliac”. I have taken up drawing and did a series of hoofed mammals, including Takin and another i like is Saola.

  32. looks like a cross between a yak and a water buffalo…fascinating!! perhaps also related to the Carpathian buffalos?….so intriguing! thank you very much!!!

  33. The more we know the more we realize we know little. This is so fabulous. I love seeing these animals.

  34. Matt:
    The Takin, a goat antelope, is related to the Rocky Mountain Goat, a species I studied for a doctorate. Other species in the group include the Goral, the Serow, and the Chamois (found in Europe.) Thanks for the article!
    Chet Rideout

    1. Hi Chester (and everyone),
      Thanks for the great comments. The goat-antelopes are all among my favorite creatures. I’d like to do future blogs on all of them!

  35. Wonderful! A new critter to be treasured and followed.
    Thanks – Charly Castle, Austin, TX.


  37. This is a fascinating article. I had never heard of a takin before now. They are lovely animals with a sweet face. Thank you for your wonderful work.

  38. I agree with Susan Kline that all animals need to thrive for humans to thrive.
    Also, I believe protect all living structures on God’s Earth.
    Takins do have sweet faces, however with the Oil and urine smellIi would not want to feed them.
    Thanks for the new animal info.

  39. Please do not advertise Takins: trophy hunters will thrill at the obscurity and kill for kicks and $

  40. We were thrilled to first learn about Takins at the San Diego zoo. There they have a large sign filling you in on the genetic information about them, which we photographed. If we got it on our digital record of trips there I could email it to you, but need to search out our many picture records of trips to the zoo.


  42. Cute face looks like a cow/goat mix. Thanks for the info it was intriguing.

  43. This is so fascinating and I had never heard of these amazing and beautiful animals. thank you Matthew for researching and educating us. Hugs…Hildy

  44. Wonderful photos of beautiful beasts. We just returned from African where we viewed many mammals new to us. So I can understand your enthusiasm. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!

  45. Thanks for your introduction to this big guy. I will save this article and photos to share with a granddaughter equally interested in nature on some rainy day when we can’t get outside.

  46. Cannot believe that I had never heard of takins before. Hopeful that articles like this will put a spotlight on them and their endangered habitats. A thought is to feature them in a children’s nature magazine. Kids are very good about educating their elders. Also, keep mentioning the stinky habits as I suspect that would dissuade hunting. Who wants to pack out that!

  47. Thank you for introducing this beautiful creature to me. They’re the latest addition to the list of endangered’s I’m rooting for.

  48. This is a beautiful animal. I am glad that you are doing so much to ensure its continued existence. The last picture made me sad, however. The animal seemed lonely. I don’t visit zoos any more. I dislike the isolation of these creatures and am saddened that they are caged.
    Perhaps we too are captured somewhere else in the galaxy. I hope our captors have good reasons to do this and are intelligent enough to understand that isolation from others like you is not condusive to a happy and long life.
    I do hope we will continue to evolve as species/creatures on this planet.
    Thanks for an interesting article.