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Domestic sheep (Ovis aries) have long been important to humans for their milk, meat, and wool. In 2000, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) compiled a list of recognized breeds of domesticated mammals which included 1495 breeds of sheep (tallies from other sources may differ, but the number is clearly in the hundreds) (Scherf 2000 cited in Groves and Leslie 2011).

The origins of domestic sheep are not well known. It is generally believed that sheep domestication occurred shortly after goat domestication (probably 7000 to 10000 years ago) and in the same region, the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Genetic studies have not yet provided a clear indication of the wild ancestors of modern domestic sheep, although progress has made in addressing this question. Groves and Leslie (2011) suggest that the Anatolian Sheep or Asiatic Mouflon (Ovis gmelini) is likely the ancestor of domestic sheep and that European Mouflon, sometimes referred to as O. musimon or O. orientalis musimon, are the feral descendants of the first domestic sheep brought to Europe. The name O. aries is often used to refer only to domestic sheep, but has also been used more broadly, depending on which forms are recognized as distinct species--for example, including mouflon as well (see Rezaei et al. 2010 and Groves and Leslie 2011).

In some areas, such as parts of Australia and the United States, overgrazing by domestic sheep has caused great ecological damage. In addition, transmission of diseases to wild relatives such as the Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis) of North America have resulted in significant mortality.


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