Colours of Wildlife: Blue Wildebeests

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours ... but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Blue Wildebeests

Blue Wildebeests

This is a watercolour painting of a Blue Wildebeest mom and kid. As reference I used a photo taken by my friend professor Gigi Gottwald in the Mapungubwe National Park (I altered it slightly for the painting).

Blue Wildebeests are large antelopes, the males (called bulls) reaching 145 cm (almost 5 ft) at the shoulder and a bodyweight of about 270 kg (600 lbs). They are very cattle-like in appearance, and the name 'Wildebeest' (today in Afrikaans 'Wildebees' without the t) actually doesn't mean 'Wild Beast' but rather 'Wild Cow/Bull' (since in Afrikaans we have the singular 'bees' which includes either gender, whereas in English there's just the plural 'cattle' without a gender-neutral singular). But 'beast' and 'beest' actually do come from the same Old French word, 'beste' which means an animal. In Dutch the primary animals it came to apply to were cattle. But sorry, this is not a lecture on etymology! I'd rather speak about the wildebeests themselves.

They do look cow-like, to such a degree that it might seem appropriate to label them 'wild cattle', but actually, they belong to a very distant branch of the same family, the 'Bovidae' or bovids. This family includes all cows and oxen, domestic and wild, and also buffaloes, bison, antelopes, gazelles, duikers, goats and sheep. So it is a very large and diverse family. Within the family, Blue Wildebeests belong to the 'Alcelaphines', a tribe of large and mainly long-faced antelopes, also including Hartebeests (which means roughly deer-cattle), and the Blesbok and Bontebok. Blue wildebeests have large heads carried on particularly deep and thick, ox-like necks, and the sideways-spreading shape of their horns (carried by bulls as well as cows) is also reminiscent of those of cattle and buffaloes. Somewhat horselike is the shaggy mane of black hair, as well as the long-haired tail. The Black Wildebeest, a close relative, is even more horselike in general proportions, but has weird forwardly-curving horns, and a tall, bristly mane on the front part of its nose and face. Both wildebeests have a long 'beard' below the neck and chin, which can be white or black.

The reason for the 'blue' in its name comes from the bluish sheen of the short hairs covering its body. Another name, 'Brindled Wildebeest' comes from the vertical dark and light stripes along the side of its body. Yet another name for these antelope is 'Gnu' (pronounced 'noo' or 'new'). It comes from the Khoikhoi name 'gnou' and is probably onomatopoeic, mimicking the rather nasal lowing sounds they make.

The Blue Wildebeest also has a shaggy mat of hair on the front of its nose, though not so prominently long and bristly as that of the Black Wildebeest. These hairs seem to help diffuse scents from the prominent glands below their eyes (you can see it in my painting, the small 'ring' below the mother's eye). They also have scent glands between their hooves. As they usually travel in large herds, the scents from the face glands would drift through the air while the hoof glands would spread the scents over the ground, and so scent might help to establish a 'herd identity' over the territory they traverse.

Wildebeests are some of the most numerous large African mammals, so thank heavens, they cannot currently be considered threatened. Very large numbers of them take part in the annual migration between the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti Game Reserves in Kenya and Tanzania. Actually this is not a single, co-ordinated migration, but more a general pattern of moving around in response to climatic factors. The big obstacle in this movement is the Mara river. This is where hundreds or thousands of wildebeests often congregate at a single crossing, where crocodiles wait for them. Most make it through without trouble, but a single wildebeest can feed three or four crocs for an entire year. The wildebeest mass migration is considered one of the seven 'new' wonders of the world.

But wildebeests occur in many other parts of Africa as well, including most of Southern Africa. Here they are found in large numbers in the Kruger National Park, and in the Kalahari Desert where, again, they move around according to the rains and availability of fresh grass and drinking water.

Interestingly, these antelopes are specialist short grass feeders. Their wide, flat mouths are perfect lawnmower-style grass croppers. Where grass is long and rank, they feed with difficulty, and consequently they are most abundant in the short, open, park-like grasslands as found in the Serengeti. This also makes them quite easy to spot and photograph. In turn their activity helps to maintain these natural parks, keeping the grass short but also stimulating them into constant growth, making them extremely productive for the wildebeests and numerous other grazers.

In such open situations they are of course vulnerable to predators, and constitute a significant item on the menus of lions and hyenas. The victims are mostly young calves. These are born one to a female, in the wet season, and usually in large numbers all at the same time in a large herd. The newborn calves are a light tan colour, becoming darker as they age. Like many other antelopes, the calf after birth will directly try to stand up, will flop around a few times, but within minutes will succeed in standing up, and will then quickly learn to walk, and within a day, to run. The youngsters have disproportionately long legs to help them keep up with the adults. As such, they have a good chance to escape predation, and only a few are taken by predators. They also benefit from safety in numbers. Predators will mainly pick off sick, injured or isolated individuals, young or old.

Of course before there are babies there must be mating. Within the territories of the huge herds, individual bulls will stake claim to small patches, perhaps less than a hectare. These patches will be marked off by the scents wafted from the bull's facial glands, and he will also advertise by loud grunting and snorting, and displays of leaping and head-shaking. If there are trees around, the bull might rub his face and horns against them … often in the process rubbing off the tree's bark as well, ringbarking it and by the death of the tree contributing to the expansion of the grasslands. There may be a bit of conflict between bulls, but most of them might be settled by displays rather than direct fighting. The herd would often move on around the displaying bulls, not taking much notice of them. Sometimes a few bulls would end up being outpaced and left behind by the herd. Females will select the bulls she finds impressive, often mating with several during one season, but as I've said, the end result is just a single successful fertilization and a single calf.

There is some genetic diversity in the Blue Wildebeest. Five different local subspecies are recognized, the most distinctive being the White Bearded Gnu of Northeast Africa. In prehistoric and early historic times there were Blue Wildebeests in North Africa up to the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

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