The hunted 95 per cent?

Let’s start with:

(1) Hunted for its horns, 95 percent of the population disappeared

This looks like a classic “dangling modifier”. We have a SPAR hunted for its horns (a Subjectless Predicative Adjunct Requiring a referent for the missing subject), but the adjunct doesn’t obey the Subject Rule (doesn’t pick up its referent from the subject of the main clause: (1) doesn’t in fact tell us that 95 percent of the population was hunted for its horns). (On the concepts and terminology, see the material in the Page on “Dangler postings”, especially the “as a SPAR” posting.)

But even without context, (1) is easily understood: 95 percent of the population is a metonymic stand-in for a population of X, and it’s X that was hunted for its horns. But that takes some interpretive work. However, when more discourse context is provided, this work is no longer needed, and I’d expect that readers wouldn’t even notice that (1) is technically a dangling modifier.

(1) is only the beginning of a sentence in the original text; just finishing the sentence makes (1) much easier to understand:

(1′) Hunted for its horns, 95 percent of the population disappeared, and the saiga was declared critically endangered.

You don’t even have to know what a saiga is to infer that it’s the X that was hunted for its horns, and hence is some sort of horned creature.

But when you get preceding context as well, (1) requires no interpretive work at all. The text (1) comes from is an article by Carl Zimmer in the NYT Science Times on the 2nd, an article that is literally all about saigas, all the time.

It starts with the title of the piece:

(2a) Death on the Steppes: A mysterious disease led to the die-off of saigas, putting a remarkable revival at risk [in print]

(2b) Death on the Steppes: Mystery Disease Kills Saigas [on-line]

and continues with the first paragraph:

(3) Before the end of the last Ice Age, saigas roamed by the millions in a range stretching from England to Siberia, even into Alaska. Eventually they moved to the steppes of Central Asia, where they continued to thrive — until the 20th century, when these strange-looking antelopes began flirting with extinction.

after which we get (1′) as the second paragraph.

I’ve noted many times (see items on the danglers Page) that the referent of the missing subject of a SPAR is preferentially an entity that’s topical in the discourse. When the discourse topic is strongly determined by the context (as with (2) and (3) as text preceding (1)), topicality easily overrides problems with the Subject Rule (that the referent of the missing subject of the adjunct is, by default, picked out via the subject of the main clause). So I think (1) is flawless in context.

Saigas. Some words about the creatures. Two male saigas during their rutting season, when their noses swell to cartoonish proportions:

(Photo credit: Igor Shpilenok/Minden Pictures)

The text in (3) above carries the story part of the way. Controls on hunting saigas and trafficking their horns succeeded in bringing the species back from the brink. But then recently saigas have been afflicted by a mystery disease that develops fast and has 100% mortality in affected populations. Massive die-offs, extraordinary crash in numbers. The NYT story has some heart-breaking photos.

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