|Blue wildebeest, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania|
The wildebeest, also called the gnu is an antelope in the genus Connochaetes. It belongs to the family Bovidae, which includes antelopes, cattle, goats, sheep and other even-toed horned ungulates. Connochaetes includes two species, both native to Africa: the black wildebeest, or white-tailed gnu (C. gnou); and the blue wildebeest, or brindled gnu (C. taurinus). Fossil records suggest these two species diverged about one million years ago, resulting in northern and southern species. The blue wildebeest changed very little from the ancestor species, while the black wildebeest took on more morphological changes to adapt to a habitat of open grassland in the south. Today, the blue wildebeest has five subspecies, while the black wildebeest has no named subspecies. In East Africa, the wildebeest is the most abundant big-game species, both in population and biomass.
The wildebeest (// WIL-də-beest or // VIL-, plural wildebeest or wildebeests, wildebeesties (juv)), also called the gnu (// NOO or // NEW) is an antelope of the genus Connochaetes. Wildebeest is Dutch for "wild beast" or "wild cattle" in Afrikaans (bees = cattle), while Connochaetes derives from the Greek words κόννος, kónnos, "beard", and χαίτη, khaítē, "flowing hair", "mane". The name "gnu" originates from the Khoikhoi name for these animals, t'gnu.
Taxonomy and evolution
The wildebeest, or the genus Connochaetes, is placed under family Bovidae and subfamily Alcelaphinae. The name Connochaetes was given by German zoologist Martin Hinrich Carl Lichtenstein in 1814. Wildebeest were first discovered about 1700 by Dutch settlers on their way to the interior of South Africa. Due to their resemblance to wild cattle, these people called them "wild ox" or "wildebeest". The black wildebeest was first known to westerners in the northern part of South Africa a century later, in the 1800s.
In the early twentieth century, one species of the wildebeest, Connochaetes albojubatus, was identified in eastern Africa. In 1914, two separate races of the wildebeest were introduced, namely Gorgon a. albojubatus (Athi white-beared wildebeest) and G. a. mearnsi (Loita white-bearded wildebeest). However, in 1939, the two were once again merged into a single race, Connochaetes taurinus albojubatus. In the mid-twentieth century, two separate forms were recognised, Gorgon taurinus hecki and G. t. albojubatus. Finally two distinct types of wildebeest - the blue and black wildebeest - were identified. The blue wildebeest placed under a separate genus of its own, Gorgon, while black wildebeest belonged to the genus Connochaetes. Today the genus Connochaetes consists of two species: the black wildebeest (C. gnou) and the blue wildebeest (C. taurinus).
According to an mtDNA analysis, the black wildebeest seem to have diverged from the main lineage during the Middle Pleistocene and became a distinct species around a million years ago. A divergence rate of approximately 2% has been calculated. The split does not seem to have been driven by competition for resources but instead by the fact that each species adopted a different feeding niche and occupied a different trophic level.
Blue wildebeest fossils dating back some two and a half million years ago are common and widespread. They have been found in the fossil bearing caves at the Cradle of Humankind north of Johannesburg. Elsewhere in South Africa they are plentiful at such sites as Elandsfontein, Cornelia and Florisbad. The earliest fossils of the black wildebeest were found in sedimentary rock in Cornelia in the Orange Free State and dated back about eight hundred thousand years.
Genetics and hybrids
The diploid number of chromosomes in the wildebeest is 58. Chromosomes were studied in a male and a female wildebeest. In the female, all except a pair of very large submetacentric chromosomes were found to be acrocentric. Metaphases were studied in the male's chromosomes, and very large submetacentric chromosomes were found there as well, similar to those in the female both in size and morphology. Other chromosomes were acrocentric. The X chromosome is a large acrocentric and the Y chromosome a minute one.
The two species of the wildebeest are known to hybridise. Male black wildebeest have been reported to mate with female blue wildebeest and vice versa. The differences in social behaviour and habitats have historically prevented interspecific hybridisation between the species, however hybridisation may occur when they are both confined within the same area. The resulting offspring is usually fertile. A study of these hybrid animals at Spioenkop Dam Nature Reserve in South Africa revealed that many had disadvantageous abnormalities relating to their teeth, horns and the wormian bones in the skull. Another study reported an increase in the size of the hybrid as compared to either of its parents. In some animals the auditory bullae are highly deformed and in others the radius and ulna are fused.
A full-grown wildebeest can be 1.27–1.47 m (4.2–4.8 ft) at the shoulder and weigh 120–270 kg (260–600 lb). They inhabit the plains and open woodlands of Africa, especially the Serengeti National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tanzania, Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya, and Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia. Wildebeest can live more than 40 years, though their average lifespan is around 20 years. The wildebeest has a broad muzzle which helps it to eat short grass.
Differences between blue and black wildebeest
The most striking morphological differences between the black and blue wildebeest are the orientation and curvature of their horns and the color of their coats. The blue wildebeest is the bigger of the two species. In males, blue wildebeest stand 150 cm tall at the shoulder and weigh around 250 kg, while the black wildebeest stands 111 to 120 cm tall and weighs about 180 kg. In females, blue wildebeest have a shoulder height of 135 cm and weigh 180 kg while black wildebeest females stand 108 cm at the shoulder and weigh 155 kg. The horns of blue wildebeest protrude to the side then curve downwards before curving up back towards the skull, while the horns of the black wildebeest curve forward then downward before curving upwards at the tips. Blue wildebeest tend to be a dark grey color with stripes, but may have a shiny blue color. The black wildebeest has brown-coloured fur, with a mane that ranges in color from cream to black, and a cream-coloured tail end. The blue wildebeest lives in a wide variety of habitats, including woodlands and grasslands, while the black wildebeest tends to reside exclusively in open grassland areas. The blue wildebeest migrates over long distances in the winter, whereas the black wildebeest does not. The milk of the female black wildebeest contains higher protein, lower fat, and lower lactose content than the milk of female blue wildebeest.
Not all wildebeest are migratory. Black wildebeest herds are often nomadic or may have a regular home range of 1 km2 (11,000,000 sq ft). Bulls may occupy territories, usually about 100 to 400 m (328 to 1,312 ft) apart, but this spacing varies according to the quality of the habitat. In favourable conditions they may be as close as 9 m (30 ft) or as far apart as 1,600 m (5,200 ft) in poor habitat. Female herds have home ranges of about 250 acres (100 ha; 0.39 sq mi) in size. Herds of non-territorial batchelor males roam at will and do not seem to have a home range.
In the Masai Mara game reserve, there is a non-migratory population of blue wildebeest which had dwindled from about 119,000 animals in 1977 to about 22,000 in 1997. The reason for the decline is thought to be the increasing competition between cattle and wildebeest for a dwindling area of grazing land as a result of changes in agricultural practices, and possibly fluctuations in rainfall.
Each year, some East African populations of blue wildebeest have a long-distance migration, seemingly timed to coincide with the annual pattern of rainfall and grass growth. The timing of their migrations in both the rainy and dry seasons can vary considerably (by months) from year to year. At the end of the rainy season (May or June in East Africa), wildebeest migrate to dry-season areas in response to a lack of surface (drinking) water. When the rainy season begins again (months later), animals quickly move back to their wet-season ranges. Factors suspected to affect migration include food abundance, surface water availability, predators, and phosphorus content in grasses. Phosphorus is a crucial element for all life forms, particularly for lactating female bovids. As a result during the rainy season, wildebeest select grazing areas that contain particularly high phosphorus levels. One study found, in addition to phosphorus, wildebeest select ranges containing grass with relatively high nitrogen content. Large-scale wildebeest migration is quite likely a consequence of decisions being made by individuals at multiple spatial scales, involving a balance of food abundance, food quality, local density of other wildebeest, social interactions, surface water, perceived predation risk, and culturally (or possibly genetically) learned routes and ranges.
Numerous documentaries feature wildebeest crossing rivers, with many being eaten by crocodiles or drowning in the attempt. While having the appearance of a frenzy, recent research has shown a herd of wildebeest possesses what is known as a "swarm intelligence", whereby the animals systematically explore and overcome the obstacle as one. Major predators that feed on wildebeest include the lion, hyena, cheetah, leopard, and crocodile, which seem to favour the wildebeest. Wildebeest, however, are very strong, and can inflict considerable injury even to a lion. Wildebeest have a maximum running speed of around 80 km/h (50 mph). The primary defensive tactic is herding, where the young animals are protected by the older, larger ones, while the herd runs as a group. Typically, the predators attempt to cut out a young or ill animal and attack without having to worry about the herd. Wildebeest have developed additional sophisticated cooperative behaviours, such as animals taking turns sleeping while others stand guard against a night attack by invading predators. Scientists are unsure how much is learned behaviour and how much is instinct. Wildebeest migrations are closely followed by vultures, as wildebeest carcasses are an important source of food for these scavengers. The vultures consume about 70% of the wildebeest carcasses available. Decreases in the number of migrating wildebeest have also had a negative effect on the vultures. In the Serengeti ecosystem, Tanzania, wildebeest may help facilitate the migration of other, smaller-bodied grazers, such as Thomson's gazelles (Eudorcas thomsonii), which eat the new-growth grasses stimulated by wildebeest foraging.
Interactions with nonpredators
Zebras and wildebeest group together in open savannah environments with high chances of predation. This grouping strategy reduces predation risk because larger groups decrease each individual’s chance of being hunted, and predators are more easily seen in open areas.
Wildebeest can also listen in on the alarm calls of other species, and by doing so can reduce their risk of predation. One study showed, along with other ungulates, wildebeests responded more strongly to the baboon alarm calls compared to the baboon contest calls, though both types of calls had similar patterns, amplitudes, and durations. The alarm calls were a response of the baboons to lions, and the contest calls were recorded when a dispute between two males occurred.
Breeding and reproduction
Because of their migratory ways, the wildebeest do not form permanent pair bonds. The wildebeest mating season, rut, is when the males establish temporary territories and try to attract females. These small territories are about 3000 m2, with up to 300 territories per km2. The males defend these small territories from other males while trying to attract females that are ready to mate. The males entice females into their territories with grunts and distinctive antics. Wildebeest usually breed at the end of the rainy season when the animals are most fit. The mating season usually occurs between May and July, and birthing usually takes place between January and March, at the start of the wet season. The gestation period is about eight to nine months, and the average estrous cycle is about 23 days. Wildebeest females breed seasonally and ovulate spontaneously. Groups of wildebeest females and young live in the small areas established by the male. When groups of wildebeest join together, the female to male ratio is larger, as the females flock to the areas held by fewer males. This female-dominated sex ratio may be due to illegal hunting and human disturbance. Higher male mortality has been attributed to illegal hunting.
Threats and conservation
Today many wildebeest populations are experiencing rapid declines. Overland migration as a biological process requires large connected landscapes, which are increasingly difficult to maintain, particularly over the long term, when human demands on the landscape compete, as well. The most acute threat comes from migration barriers, such as fences and roads. In one of the more striking examples of the consequences of fence-building on terrestrial migrations, Botswanan authorities placed thousands of kilometres of fences across the Kalahari that prevented wildebeests from reaching watering holes and grazing grounds, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of individuals, and dropping the wildebeest population to less than 10% of its previous size. Illegal hunting is a major conservation concern in many areas, along with natural threats posed by main predators (such as lions, leopards, hunting dogs and hyenas). Where it lives alongside the blue wildebeest, the two can hybridise, and this is regarded as a potential threat to the maintenance of the species.
The black wildebeest has been classified as of "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in its Red List of Threatened Species. The populations of this species are on an increase. There are now believed to be more than 18,000 individuals, 7,000 of which are in Namibia, outside its natural range, and where it is farmed. Around 80% of the wildebeest occur in private areas, while the other 20% are confined in protected areas. Its introduction into Namibia has been a success and numbers have increased substantially there from 150 in 1982 to 7,000 in 1992.
The blue wildebeest has also been rated as being of "Least Concern". The population trend is stable, and their numbers are estimated to be around 1,500,000 - mainly due to the increase of the populations in Serengeti National Park (Tanzania) to 1,300,000. However, the numbers of one of the subspecies, the Eastern white-bearded wildebeest (C. t. albojubatus) have seen a steep decline. Population density ranges from 0.15/sq. km. in Hwange and Etosha National Parks to 35/sq. km. in Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park.
Uses and interaction with humans
Wildebeest provide several useful animal products. The hide makes good quality leather and the flesh is coarse, dry and rather hard. Wildebeest are killed for food, especially to make biltong in Southern Africa. This dried game meat is a delicacy and an important food item in Africa. The meat of females is more tender than that of males, and is the most tender during the autumn season. Wildebeest are a regular target for illegal meat hunters because their numbers make them easy to find. Cooks preparing the wildebeest carcass usually cut it into 11 pieces. The estimated price for wildebeest meat was about US$ 0.47 per kilogram around 2008. The silky, flowing tail of the black wildebeest is used to make fly-whisks or "chowries".
The wildebeest benefit the ecosystem by increasing soil fertility with their excreta. Nowadays they are economically important for human beings as they are a major tourist attraction as well as providing important products like leather. However, the wildebeest can also have a negative impact on humans. Wild individuals can be competitors of commercial livestock, and can transmit fatal diseases like rinderpest and cause epidemics among animals, particularly domestic cattle. They can also spread ticks, lungworms, tapeworms, flies and paramphistome flukes.
The black wildebeest is depicted on the coat of arms of the Province of Natal in South Africa. Over the years the South African authorities have issued several stamps displaying the animal and the South African Mint has struck a two cent piece with a prancing black wildebeest.
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