Sunday, June 26, 2011

Interesting Animals: Hartebeest

Most of the herd I studied. Nearly all females, with only one juvenile male
Mack, one of the males
I had the privilege of studying these animals in captivity as part of my degree. I worked with the Jackson's hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus jacksoni), whose taxonimic status is currently uncertain. Though once thought to be a separate subspecies, it is now thought they are actually hyrbids between the Coke's (A.b. cokei) and lelwel (A.b. lelwel) subspecies. There are eight subspecies in all, and according to the IUCN Red List one is extinct, one is critically endangered, two are endangered (including the lelwel), one near threatened, and the rest are of least concern (including the Coke's). The subspecies are mainly distinguishable by color: ranging from a dark mahogany color to sandy red, with varying amounts of black.

Cecelia, center, was born during my research
The hartebeest is found through much of Saharan Africa, and they are rarely kept in captivity. Luckily for me, I had a chance to go to St. Catherines Island off the coast of Georgia and work with the animals they had there. 

Hartebeest share a Subfamily with the much better known wildebeest, and in fact they do share some territory in the wild. Both species have curving horns, but the hartebeest's are quite distinctive, forming a sort of S-shape. Their faces are also quite long and thin. In appearance, they are like no other antelope.

Their behavior is quite interesting, but I don't want to spend too much time on that, even though that is what I was researching. They are in fact ruminants like cows and goats, and they do in fact spend a lot of time "chewing their cud". They are members of the Order Artiodactyla or even-toed ungulates (a term for hoofed animals) and in fact have two toes on each foot.

I will never forget my time with these beautiful animals. It will be memorable in many ways, including the death of an animal not in the herd I studied, the birth of a calf, the amusing sight of the young male being reprimanded by his mother, the lemurs, and the remarkable behavior of native wildlife on a private island. Yes, I did say lemurs. St Catherines is famous for their population of free-ranging ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta). If you ever see a lemur photographed next to Spanish moss of other iconic southern plants, it's from there. There were also the startling bellows of the Grévy's zebra (Equus grevyi) in the neighboring pen and the equally startling, hollow rat-ta-ta-ta of a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) on the old pine tree behind my observation post.

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