Colours of Wildlife: The Damara Dik-Dik

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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!"

Damara Dik-Dik

This week's picture is of a Damara Dik-dik. This is a tiny antelope, about the size of a cat – though standing slightly taller on its long, thin legs. Dik-diks occur in hot, dry parts of Africa with scrubby vegetation, such as around the Horn of Africa (Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia) and the dry semi-deserts of southern Africa (Namibia and southern Angola).

There's a lot to say about these little antelopes, so please bear with me! First of all, they belong to a group called 'Dwarf Antelopes', technically termed the Neotragini, which occurs exclusively in Africa. As you might gather from the name, all of them are on the small side. The smallest of all ... indeed the smallest antelope in the world ... is the Royal Antelope, Neotragus batesi, of the West African rainforests. It weighs between 1.5 and 3 kg (3.3 to 6.6 lbs) as an adult. Other dwarf antelopes include Steenboks and their relatives, Klipspringers, Beiras, Oribis, and the dik-diks. The group as a whole bears similarities to the very first antelopes known from about 20 million years ago from Africa and Eurasia. In other words, all antelopes started small with simple, straight horns, and from there many got bigger and developed more elaborate horns. But the dwarf antelopes stayed that way. Today they are restricted to habitats with plenty of cover such as forests, thorny shrublands, rocky hills or 'koppies', or tall grasslands.

Dik-diks constitute four presently-recognised species in the genus Madoqua, of which all four are found in the Horn of Africa, while only the Damara Dik-dik, a subspecies of Kirk's Dik-dik Madoqua kirkii, also occurs in Namibia and southern Angola, very far away from the others. In past ages there were certainly dry 'corridors' that linked these two subdesert regions that are currently separated by areas of lush savannah parklands or woodlands. The preferred habitats for dik-diks are very hot and dry, with shrubby vegetation and open stony ground, and they are particularly well adapted to them. If local climate changes cause tall, dense grass to grow, they will move away to other areas.

So well-adapted are they to dry climates that they don't need to drink! They extract all necessary moisture from the leaves, herbs, flowers and pods that they eat, excreting very dry feces and highly concentrated urine. Standing on their hind legs they can browse up to a height of 1 m/1 yard, and their delicate snout tips help them to pick out leaves from in between thorns.

The characteristic inflated snout they all have is also lined inside with blood vessels, and they use it to cool down by increasing their breathing rate from one to almost eight breaths per second – in effect, panting through their noses! They only need to do this when outside temperatures reach more than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). They can also let their bodies heat up while keeping their heads and brains cool with these nasal heat exchangers. Kirk's Dik-dik, and especially Guenther's Dik-dik, Madoqua guentheri, have their snouts lengthened almost like small elephant-trunks. The more primitive Salt's Dik-dik, Madoqua saltiana, and the Silver Dik-dik, Madoqua piacentini, have more normal-looking snouts. These two are less well adapted to drought and heat, and escape the worst by being active mostly at night.

Dik-diks also use their snouts to produce the 'zik-zik' whistle from which they probably got their name.

Another feature is that dik-diks all have huge glands at the inner corners of their eyes. These secrete a black, sticky, strongly scented substance that they use for marking their territories. They do this by rubbing these glands onto twigs, thorns or grass stems at various points in their ranges. They also mark territories by depositing urine, and piles of dung at the boundaries.

There's an old story of the San (also known as Bushmen) about this. One day, it is said, a dik-dik didn't watch where it was going and tripped over a ball of elephant dung. The dik-dik looked at it angrily, and decided from that day on it will deposit its dung all in one place until it had built a heap big enough to trip the elephant!

Kirk's Dik-dik is very similar to the other species. Its bodyweight ranges from 4 to 7 kg (8.8 to 15.4 lbs) and it stands about 38-40cm (15”-16”) at the shoulder. Its body is covered with short, grizzled fur, and the male has straight, ridged, backwardly-slanted horns that reach only about 8 cm (a bit over 3”) in length. The female is hornless. Both sexes have a crest of hair between the horns that usually lies flat directed backward but can be erected. The legs are very slender, the hooves small, and the tail nonexistent – but the fur on the buttocks can be fanned into a white disc that acts as a conspicuous signal.

One of the most endearing qualities of dik-diks is their faithfulness as partners. I mentioned a similar thing in my Klipspringer article. Male and female dik-diks bond for life, only seeking new partners when one has died. They stay close together, and the male will put its dung over that of the female in the same place, so that in effect they mark their territories as a couple. While the male does most of the marking, it is actually the movements of the female that determine the territory. They can achieve densities of 90 animals per square kilometer/230 per square mile.

When threatened, dik-diks will first try to hide, crouching down. When the threat comes closer they will then suddenly jump out and run, both the male and the female giving loud whistles. They can run at speeds of 40 km/h, 25 mph, but only for short distances. When the threat is past the male and female will come back and greet each other by rubbing faces. The male may also lick the female's eye-glands, which start running as a result of excitement.

Fawns are born in the rainy season, after a gestation of about five and a half months. The mother will take care of them on her own. They stop suckling at about three months and females can become pregnant at the age of 7 to 8 months. They are chased away by their parents as soon as they are mature!

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