The Barbary sheep has the distinction of being the only wild sheep species in Africa, and the only species in the genus Ammotragus. In appearance, it is somewhat of an intermediate between a sheep and a goat. It is a stocky, heavily built animal, with short legs and a rather long face. The coat, which is generally a sandy-brown colour, is woolly during the winter, but moults to a finer, sleek coat for the hot summer months. Both sexes have horns that sweep backwards and outwards in an arch; those of the male are much thicker, longer and more heavily ridged than the more slender horns of the female. Males also differ from females by their significantly heavier weight, (up to twice that of females), and the notably longer curtain of hair that hangs from the throat, chest and upper part of the forelegs. On males, this mane of long, soft hairs almost touches the ground. The short tail, which is hairless on the underside, has scent glands.
This agile sheep lives in small groups of between three and six individuals, comprising a single adult male, several adult females, and their offspring. Occasionally, such as in the dry season, several of these groups may congregate, forming parties of up to 20 individuals. Adult males must earn their position as head of a group of females through intimidation displays, with males showing their magnificent mane of hair on their foreparts, and savage fights in which two males stand up to 15 metres apart, and then walk rapidly toward each other, breaking into a run and lowering their heads before colliding. Remarkably, it has been observed that a male will not attack if his opponent is unprepared or off-balance.
Mating is thought to peak in October and November, with births taking place around 150 to 165 days later. One or two young are born at a time, and lie in a secluded site with the mother for the first few days of life, before joining the rest of the group. Female Barbary sheep reach sexual maturity around the age of 18 months, and Barbary sheep in captivity have been known to live for 24 years.
The Barbary sheep feeds primarily at dusk, dawn and during the night, on a diet of grass, herbs, and foliage from shrubs and trees. By feeding at night, when plants accumulate moisture from the atmosphere or become covered in dew, the Barbary sheep gains much needed water, enabling this sheep to survive without drinking water during dry periods in its arid habitat. Another adaptation to this dry and unproductive terrain can be seen in the Barbary sheep’s reaction to threats; with an almost total lack of sufficient vegetation to hide behind, the Barbary sheep will instead remain motionless when threatened, their sandy-brown coat enabling them to blend into their surroundings.