Unicorns, mythical beasts that are confined to fairy tales and children’s storybooks, right? Wrong. If you come to South Africa and look deep into the African bush you might just see one. No, I’m not talking about the fabled horses/goat type animal with flowing manes and a single horn, but rather something that is more prehistoric, a critically endangered herbivore, a mammal with stunning grey skin, and two beautiful but deadly horns.
When you come to the beautiful continent of Africa what animals are on on the top of your list to see? Elegant Cheetahs, gigantic Elephants, magnificent Lions, prehistoric Rhinos and maybe the curious Giraffe and stripy Zebra, they probably all made the list. There is one species of animal that is commonly overlooked on a game drive, an animal that is probably one of the most numerous animals that you will see in the African bush, an animal that when the initial excitement of seeing it has worn off, it tends to get ignored.
I’m talking about an antelope, specifically the beautiful and elegant reddish-brown Impala. I can understand why people take them for granted after all it’s pretty rare to go on a game drive and not see them, which means that it’s all too easy for people to take them for granted, brushing them off as ‘’oh its just another herd of Impala’’, rather than marvelling in the magnitude of these animals. The Impala is one of the most successful, perfectly adapted species in Africa, in fact, they are so perfectly designed that as a species their form has barely changed in the last 5 million years.
So, what is the difference between an antelope and a deer that you might find at home? A male deer will shed and regrow his horns every year, while an antelope’s horns are permanent. Many a time I have been on game drives and seen antelope with broken horns, more than likely lost in battle with another male. Deer also have branched horns and antelope don’t.
Let’s address one popular misunderstanding about Impalas. Its has long been a rumour that female Impalas can delay the birth of their young by up to a month if the conditions aren’t right. This rumour may prove to be more myth than fact. Impalas are synchronised breeders, the rutting season normally starts in May resulting in lots of baby Impalas being born in November and December, when the first rains start to replenish the African bush, resulting in plenty of food for the lactating mother. But what happens when the rains are late, and conditions aren’t right for the baby Impalas to survive? The birth canal of an Impala is only so big, so in order to delay the birth of a foetus, she would also need to be able to stop it from growing, which is highly unlikely. What is more likely that any babies born early are the ones that were conceived first when the rutting season started, if the rains are late and there is no food about then these calves will simply die before we even know that they exist and the ones that are born a week or two later are the ones that survive. It is also possible for a female, early in the pregnancy to reabsorb the foetus or later to abort the foetus if the conditions aren’t favourable.
Due to environmental conditions and the fact that baby Impalas are a tasty snack for any predator, it is thought that only half the newborn Impalas will survive. This might sound harsh, but the rule of nature is one of survival of the fittest and because there are so many born in such a short space of time half of them survive. To Impalas safety in numbers and a high birth rate is an important survival strategy that has served them well for thousands of years.
Impalas have beautiful glossy coats. This is the result of them spending large amounts of time attending to their personal grooming. They have modified teeth, their lower incisors are slightly loose and can splay open, turning their teeth into a comb that can effectively get rid of parasites and dirt. They are also allo-groomers which means that Impala will help each other clean those harder to reach places.
Just like us, Impalas feel the cold and when they get cold, the hair on their bodies stands up. This helps them trap a layer of air close to their skin, which helps insulate them against the cold. It’s not unusual on a winter’s morning to see the Impalas gleaming coats take on a darker, fluffier and duller appearance. Do you know what the erection of hair is called? Drop us a comment below and let us know.
When you are a prey species it is important that you can blend into the background and that stand a chance of outrunning any animal that will try to make you its dinner. The colouring of an Impala helps make them appear two dimensional to predators. When you look at an impala, you will notice that their stomachs are white, their flanks are light brown and their backs are a darker shade brown. This is called countershading and it helps to break up their form enabling them to blend into the background. They are also incredibly agile, when they need to, they can jump 3m high and up to 12m long and they can run up to 80kmp.
These are just some of the amazing facts about these elegant animals. Next time you see them please don’t just drive by them, rather stop and spend some time marvelling and observing these magnificent animals. After all the African bush comprises of more than the Big 5 and in our ecosystem, every animal is important.
Believe it or not, impala are one of a kind! They are the only member of the genus Aepyceros that falls under the Bovidae family (which includes buffalo, sheep, goats, and cows). However, there are two sub-species, the common impala and the very rare black-faced impala, found only in Namibia and Angola.
Being an apex prey species, this graceful animal can jump up to 3m in height and 10m in length. Combine that with speeds of up to 60km/h and you will realize that they have an amazing skill set to evade predators. This being said, they sometimes, literally, just jump for joy. ‘Impala’ is the Zulu word for ‘gazelle’.
Only the males have horns, which are used for defence as well as an attack during the mating season. The horns take several years to reach full length and that is the reason that younger males do not challenge for dominance. A gland on the forehead of the rams produces a scent that informs their rivals of their status.
There is a common theory that female impala, have been known to delay giving birth if the weather conditions are harsh. Impala young are born in the middle of the day when their main predators are resting. The females synchronize their birthing so that there are large numbers of young as up to half of the newborns are killed within their first few weeks. Twice as many females as males are born annually.
Impalas have to drink every day, but as predators’ frequent waterholes at dawn or dusk, the impala is often seen drinking in the hottest part of the day when the chance of being attacked is reduced.
Most of the cat species will prey on both the adult impala as well as the youngsters and new-born. Baboons have been known to kill and eat smaller individuals as well.
Impalas are social animals and are usually never seen alone. Females and youngsters will live together in mixed herds with a dominant male, while the males will live in bachelor herds. There is an increase of males in a herd during the rutting season. Herd living has the advantage of confusing predators when they scatter.
There is another theory that surrounds impala (that has yet to be proven. It is thought that they produce a scent from glands on their hind legs, this scent is released when they kick high when they are airborne. The purpose of the scent is to enable the herd to regroup after they have scattered. Covering a wide range, they will migrate seasonally depending on food availability.
Do you have any specific questions about Impala you would like answered?
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