|Male springbok at Etosha National Park.|
The springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) is a medium-sized brown and white antelope of southwestern Africa. It was first described by the German zoologist, Eberhard August Wilhelm von Zimmermann in 1780. Three subspecies have been identified. The springbok is a slender antelope with long legs and neck, and with horns present in both sexes. Males are about 75 cm (30 in) tall at the shoulder, and females nearly 72 cm (28 in). They weigh between 33 and 48 kg (73 and 106 lb) for the males and 30 and 44 kg (66 and 97 lb) for the females. The springbok has a white head and face with dark stripes extending from a corner of the eyes to the corners of the mouth.
Springbok are active mainly around dawn and dusk. Bachelor males and females form separate herds. During the rut, males establish territories. Trekbokken refers to the large-scale migration of herds of springbok seen roaming the country when large numbers of springbok inhabited the Kalahari and Karoo. Springbok often go into bouts of repeated high leaps of up to 2 m (6 ft 7 in) into the air in a practice known as pronking or stotting. Springbok are primarily browsers, switching to grazing seasonally. Springbok mate year-round, though it might peak in the rainy season. Gestation lasts 168 days, and results in the birth of a single calf. Springbok live for up to ten years.
Springbok inhabit the dry inland areas of south and southwestern Africa. The springbok has been classified under the Least Concern category by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). No major threats have been recognised to the long-term survival of the species. In fact, the springbok is one of the few antelope species considered to have an expanding population. Springbok are present in protected areas across their range.
Taxonomy and evolution
The scientific name of the springbok is Antidorcas marsupialis. The animal is the sole member of the genus Antidorcas and is placed in the family Bovidae. It was first described by the German zoologist, Eberhard August Wilhelm von Zimmermann in 1780. Initially Zimmermann had placed the species in the genus Antilope, the type species of which is the blackbuck. However, in 1847, Swedish zoologist Carl Jakob Sundevall placed the springbok in its own genus, Antidorcas. The name anti is Greek for opposite, and dorcas for gazelle - identifying the animal as a non-gazelle. The specific epithet marsupialis (Latin: marsupium, "pocket") pertains to the presence of a pocket-like skin flap which extends along the middle of the back from the tail. In fact, it is this physical feature that makes it distinct from true gazelles, and the reason it was placed in a separate genus of its own. The common name "springbok" comes from the Afrikaans and Dutch words spring referring to jump and bok referring to antelope or goat.
Fossil springbok are known from the Pliocene, and the genus appears to have first evolved about three million years ago, from a gazelle-like ancestor. Three fossil species have been identified, in addition to the extant form, and appear to have been widespread across Africa. Two of these, A. bondi and A. australis, became extinct during the early Holocene, about 7,000 years ago. The third species, A. recki, probably gave rise to the extant form A. marsupialis during the Pleistocene, about 0.1 million years ago. Fossils have been reported from Pliocene, Pleistocene and Holocene sites in northern, southern and eastern Africa. Fossils have been reported from Herolds Bay Cave in Western Cape Province and Florisbad in Free State (South Africa), dating back to at least 80,000 and 100,000 years ago respectively.
- A. m. angolensis (Blaine, 1922) Found in Benguela and Namibe in southwestern Angola.
- A. m. hofmeyri (Thomas, 1926) Found in Berseba and Great Namaqualand in southwestern Africa. Its range lies to the north of the Orange, extending from Upington and Sandfontein through Botswana to Namibia.
- A. m. marsupialis (Zimmermann, 1780) Its range lies to the south of the Orange River, extending from the northeastern Cape to the Free State and Kimberley.
The springbok is a slender antelope with long legs and neck. The head-and-body length is typically between 120 and 150 cm (47 and 59 in), and horns are present in both sexes. Males are about 75 cm (30 in) tall at the shoulder, and females nearly 72 cm (28 in). Males weigh between 33 and 48 kg (73 and 106 lb) and females between 30 and 44 kg (66 and 97 lb). The tail is 14 to 28 centimetres (5.5 to 11.0 in) long. The ears are long, narrow and pointed. The length of the ears is about 15.3 to 19.5 cm (6.0 to 7.7 in) in males while in females it is 15 and 18.7 cm (5.9 and 7.4 in). There is minor sexual dimorphism, with males being only slightly larger than females and both sexes having horns.
The springbok has a white head and face with dark stripes extending from a corner of the eyes to the corners of the mouth. A dark patch marks the forehead. In juveniles the stripes and the patch are light brown. There are three variations in the color of the pelage. Springbok with normally coloured pelage have a dark reddish-brown band running horizontally from the upper forelimb to the edge of the hip, separating the dark dorsal area from the contrasting white underside. The tail (except the terminal black tuft), buttocks, the inside of the legs and the rump are white. In addition to the normal-coloured springboks there are also pure black and pure white forms, selected in some South African farms. Although born with a deep black sheen, adult black springboks develop two shades of chocolate-brown and a white marking on the face as they mature. White springbok are predominantly white with a very light brown coloured side stripe.
The skin along the middle of the dorsal side is folded in, and covered with 15.3 to 19.5 cm (6.0 to 7.7 in) long white hair erected by arrector pili muscles lying between hair follicles. This white hair is almost fully hidden in the brown pelage, until the fold opens up. This is a major feature distinguishing the antelope from gazelles. Springbok are distinguished from gazelles in several other ways. For instance, springbok have two premolar teeth in each side of each jaw, instead of three, and therefore a total of twenty eight teeth, rather than thirty. Other differences include a longer, broader and less flexible bridge to the nose in springbok, different structure of the horns, and more muscular cheeks.
There are major differences in the size and weight of the subspecies. A study gathered average body measurements for the three subspecies. A. m. angolensis males stand up to 84.3 cm (33.2 in) while females stand up to 81.6 cm (32.1 in). The males weigh around 31 kg (68 lb) while females weigh 32 kg (71 lb), being slightly heavier. A. m. hofmeyri is the largest subspecies, with the average height for males being 85.7 cm (33.7 in) and for females 71.4 cm (28.1 in). The average mass for males is 42 kg (93 lb) and for females is 35 kg (77 lb). On the other hand, A. m. marsupialis is the smallest subspecies. Males are 74.9 cm (29.5 in) tall and females 72.4 cm (28.5 in) tall. Average mass for males is 31 kg (68 lb) while for females it is 27 kg (60 lb). Another study found a strong correlation between the availability of winter dietary protein and the body mass.
|Three springbok varieties|
The three subspecies also differ in their pelage. A. m. angolensis has a brown to tawny coat, with thick dark brown stripes on the face extending two-thirds down to the muzzle. While the lateral stripe is nearly black, the stripe on the rump is dark brown. The medium brown forehead patch extends to the eye level and is separated from the bright white face by a dark brown border. There is a brown spot on the nose. A. m. hofmeyri is a light fawn, with thin dark brown face stripes. The stripes on the flanks are dark brown to black, while the posterior stripes are moderately brown. The forehead patch, dark brown or fawn, extends beyond the level of the eyes and mixes with the white of the face without any clear barriers. The nose may have a pale smudge. A. m. marsupialis is a rich chestnut brown, with thin light face stripes. The stripe near he rump is well-marked, and that on the flanks is deep brown. The forehead is brown, fawn or white. The patch does not extend beyond the eyes and, if brown or fawn, has no sharp boundaries. The nose is white or marked with a brown smudge.
The hooves and horns are black. Males have thick horns about 35–49 cm (14–19 in) long. In the subspecies A. m. marsupialis, females have horns shorter and thinner than males, with horns only 60-70 percent as long as those of males. Horns have a girth of 71 and 83 mm (2.8 and 3.3 in) at the base and thinning to 56 and 65 mm (2.2 and 2.6 in) towards the tip. In the other two subspecies there is no significant difference between the horns of both sexes. Springbok footprints are narrow and sharp, and are 5.5 cm (2.2 in) long.
Ecology and behaviour
Springbok are active mainly around dawn and dusk, although they may feed through the day in cold weather, or through the night at particularly hot times of the year. During the summer, they sleep in the shade of trees or bushes, although they often bed down in the open when it is cooler. The social structure of the springbok is similar to that of the Thomson's gazelle. Bachelor males and females form separate herds, although mixed sex herds are also common, with a roughly 3:1 sex ratio. In the mating season, males generally form and wander in herds in search of mates. Females live with their offspring in herds, that very rarely include dominant males. Territorial males round up female herds that enter their territories and keep out the bachelors. Females may leave the herds solitarily or in groups to give birth. Mothers and fawns may gather in nursery herds separate from harem and bachelor herds. After weaning, female offspring stay with their mothers until a new young is born, while males join bachelor groups.
A study of vigilant behaviour of herds revealed that individuals on the edge of the herds tend to be more cautious, and the vigilance among them decreased with group size. Group size and distance from roads and bushes were found to have major influence on vigilance, more among the grazing springbok than among the browsers. Adults were found to be more vigilant than juveniles, with males more vigilant than females. Springbok in bushes were considered as more vulnerable to predator attacks as they could not be easily alarmed, and predators usually conceal themselves in bushes. Another study with the same objective agreed with the former on many points. This study calculated that the time spent in vigilance by springbok on the fringes of herds is roughly double that spent by those in the centre and the open. Springbok were found to be more cautious in the late mornings than at dawn or in afternoons, and more at night than in the daytime. Rates and methods of vigilance were found to vary with the aim of lowering risk from predators.
During the rut, males establish territories, ranging from 10 to 70 hectares (25 to 173 acres), which they mark by urinating and depositing large piles of dung. Males in neighbouring territories frequently fight for access to females, which they do by twisting and levering at each other with their horns, interspersed with occasional stabbing attacks. Females wander between the territories of different males, rather than remaining in a single one for long periods of time. Outside of the rut, mixed sex herds can range from as few as three to as many as 180 individuals, while all-male bachelor herds are of typically no more than fifty individuals. Harem and nursery herds are much smaller, typically including no more than ten individuals.
The Dutch or Afrikaans term trekbokken refers to the large-scale migration of herds of springbok seen roaming the country during the early pioneer days of South Africa before farm fences were erected. This was when large numbers of springbok inhabited the Kalahari and Karoo. Millions of migrating springbok formed herds hundreds of kilometres long that could take several days to pass a town. These mass treks took place during long periods of drought and when they would be forced out of their range. They can efficiently retrace their path to their territories after long migrations. Trekbokken still occurs occasionally in Botswana, though on a much smaller scale than earlier.
Springbok often go into bouts of repeated high leaps of up to 2 m (6 ft 7 in) into the air in a practice known as pronking (Afrikaans and Dutch: pronk, to show off) or stotting. While pronking, the springbok repeatedly leaps into the air in a particular stiff-legged posture, with its back bowed and the white fan lifted. When the male springbok is showing off his strength to attract a mate, or to ward off predators, he starts off in a stiff-legged trot, jumping up into the air with an arched back every few paces and lifting the flap along his back. Lifting the flap causes the long white hairs under the tail to stand up in a conspicuous fan shape, which in turn emits a strong scent of sweat. While the exact cause of this behaviour is unknown, springbok exhibit this activity when they are nervous or otherwise excited. The most accepted theory for pronking is that it is a method to raise alarm against a potential predator or confuse it, or to get a better view of a concealed predator. It may also be used for displaying. The springbok are very fast antelopes, clocked at 88 km/h (55 mph). They thus generally tend to be ignored by most carnivores, unless the antelopes are breeding, similar to the blue wildebeest. Springbok make occasional low-pitched bellows as a greeting and high-pitched snorts when alarmed, but are otherwise relatively quiet animals.
Springbok are primarily browsers, switching to grazing seasonally. They prefer grazing on young succulent grasses before they lignify. At other times, they browse on shrubs and succulents. Springbok can meet their water needs from the food they eat, and survive without drinking water through dry season, or even over years. Reportedly, in extreme cases, they do not drink any water over the course of their lives. Springbok may accomplish this by selecting flowers, seeds, and leaves of shrubs before dawn, when these foods are most succulent. Springbok gather together in the wet seasons and spread out during the dry season, an unusual trait among African animals. In places such as the Etosha National Park, springbok can and do seek out water bodies when they are available. Springbok prefer grasses, such as Themeda triandra, and succulent plants, such as Lampranthus.
Springbok mate year-round, although females may be more likely to enter oestrus during the rainy season, when food is more plentiful. Females are able to conceive as early as six to seven months of age, whereas males do not attain sexual maturity until two years. Rut lasts 5–21 days. When a female approaches a rutting territorial male, the male holds his head and tail out horizontally, lowers his horns and makes a loud grunting noise to attract her. The male then urinates and sniffs the female's perineum. If the female is receptive, she also urinates, and the male makes a flehmen gesture, and taps her leg until the female either leaves or permits him to mate.
Gestation lasts 168 days, and results in the birth of a single calf, or, rarely, twins. Most young are born in the spring (October to November), just before the onset of rainy season and six months after the mating season. The young weigh from 3.8 to 5 kg (8.4 to 11.0 lb) at birth, and are initially left under shelter, such as a bush, while the female feeds elsewhere. Mother and calf rejoin the herd about three to four weeks after birth, and the young are weaned at five to six months. Springbok typically leave their mother when she next gives birth, by which time they are normally about six to twelve months old. Springbok live for up to ten years.
Distribution and habitat
Springbok inhabit the dry inland areas of south and southwestern Africa. Their range extends from the northwestern part of South Africa through the Kalahari desert into Namibia and Botswana. The range extends from the Transvaal westward to the Atlantic and north to southern Angola and Botswana. They are widespread across Namibia, while in Angola they are confined to the Namib desert. In South Africa, springbok inhabit the vast grasslands of the Free State and the open shrublands of the greater and smaller Karoo. They inhabit most of Namibia – the grasslands of the south, the Kalahari desert to the east, and the dry riverbeds of the northern bushveld of the Windhoek region, as well as the harsh Namib Desert on the west coast. In Botswana, they mostly live in the Kalahari Desert in the southwestern and central parts of the country.
Earlier, the springbok occurred in huge numbers in the dry grasslands, bushlands and shrublands of south-western and southern Africa, and migrated sporadically in in some of the southern parts of its range. These migrations do not occur anymore, but it can still be seen in seasonal concentrations in preferred areas of short vegetation such as the Kalahari desert in central and southern Botswana.
Threats and conservation
The springbok has been classified under the Least Concern category by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). No major threats have been recognised to the long-term survival of the species. In fact, the springbok is one of the few antelope species considered to have an expanding population.
Springbok are present in protected areas across their range, which include: Etosha National Park and Namib-Naukluft Park (Namibia), Makgadikgadi and Nxai National Park (Botswana), the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park between Botswana and South Africa, and Mokala and Karoo National Parks and a number of provincial reserves in South Africa. In 1999, Rod East of the IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group estimated the springbok population in South Africa at more than 670,000, noting that it might be an underestimate. However, estimates for Namibia, Angola, Botswana, Transvaal, Karoo and the Free State (which gave a total population estimate of nearly 2,000,000 - 2,500,000 animals in southern Africa), were in complete disagreement with East's estimate. Springbok are also under active management in a number of private lands. Small populations have been introduced into private lands and provincial areas of KwaZulu-Natal.
Relationship with humans
Springbok are hunted as game throughout Namibia, Botswana and South Africa because of their beautiful coats, and because they are very common and easy to support on farms with very low rainfall, which means they are cheap to hunt, as well. The export of springbok skins, mainly from Namibia and South Africa, is also a booming industry. They are also used as taxidermy models. The meat is a prized fare.
The springbok was a national symbol of South Africa under white minority rule (including a significant period prior to the establishment of apartheid). It was adopted as a nickname or mascot by a number of South African sports teams, most famously by the national rugby union team. It appeared on the emblems of the South African Air Force, the logo of South African Airways (for which it remains their radio callsign), the back of the Krugerrand coin, and the coat of arms of South Africa. It also featured as the logo of 'South Africa's Own Car', the Ranger, in the early 1970s. The springbok is currently the national animal of South Africa. Even after the decline of apartheid, the then President Nelson Mandela intervened to keep the name of the animal for the reconciliation of rugby fans, the majority of whom were whites. The national rugby team was officially recognised as the "Springboks".
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