Colours of Wildlife: Springbuck

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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!"

Springbuck by Willem

A very special animal for you this time! It is a Springbuck, Antidorcas marsupialis. This is South Africa's national mammal and the emblem of, until recently, our national sports teams. The scientific name comes from 'dorcas', meaning a kind of gazelle, and 'anti' signifying that it is not actually a gazelle; 'marsupialis' means 'pouched', and refers to a little anatomical feature I'll soon discuss in depth. The common name comes from the Afrikaans 'springbok' which means 'jumping goat/antelope'. I'll discuss the origin of that name in depth as well! Springbucks only occur in Southern Africa, and in open, dry regions: the Karoo, the Kalahari Desert, and the Namib Desert. They're mid-sized antelopes, rams reaching 60 kg/132 lbs and ewes 45 kg/100 lbs. Both sexes have horns, but those of the ram are longer and sturdier. The typical coloration is light fawn, white, and dark brown to black on the tail, facial and side stripes, but there are both all-black and all-white springbuck variants, which are sometimes specifically bred on game farms.

Vast Herds of the Plains

In South Africa, springbucks used to be outrageously abundant, up till the very recent past. The first European explorers of the interior of the country came upon ridiculously vast herds, moving as if driven (I'm tempted to say 'as if by the whips of Sauron' but that doesn't quite fit the tenor of this article). Anyways, they were very motivated to get where they're going, and in the process of these migrations, some of the springbucks in front were driven so hard from behind that they ended up crushed underfoot or impaled on tree branches they tried to leap over. These herds must have numbered in the many-milllions; a Brit named Cronwright-Schreiner spoke of a strip of land of more than a hundred miles long and fifteen miles wide being utterly overrun by these 'trekbokken' (migrating antelopes). In his words, they moved as if a solid mass, and gave the veld a white sheen as if it were covered by a light fall of snow.

Why were the springbucks congregating and moving in such vast herds? It has to do with their desert habitat and lifestyle. As I've said in many previous articles, the dry southern African interior is marked by infrequent and erratic rainfall. Any one place may experience a very dry year, or a succession of very dry years, and then a normal or even a wet year. But over the entire interior, adjacent regions can receive different rainfall, so that while one region remains dry, in the same year a neighbouring region gets a lot of rain – or at least a little more rain. Springbucks thus had to be able to move according to the available grass and shrub cover, which was dependent on the rainfall. In areas of abundant rain, grazing and browse, they could feed and breed and become numerous; but then, soon enough, that region would be dry again, and depleted, in which case they needed to move on. Numbers gave them protection against predators, and they moved along well-chosen traditional springbuck routes or roads.

Along with the ability to move fast, springbucks are also versatile in their feeding habits. They'll eat whatever is most available and most nutritious in their habitat: fresh grass if they can get it, or dry grass, or the leaves, shoots and twigs of herbs and shrubs. They're particularly partial to flowers. They also will eat pods from plants in the pea family, and fruit like the succulent desert melons, a great source of moisture in the sandy Kalahari. They'll use their sharp hooves to dig up juicy roots and tubers. If surface water is present, they'll drink, even brackish water not much loved by anything else. But they can survive without drinking so long as their food consists of more than 10% moisture content.

As abundant as they were in the nineteenth and early twentieth Century, they were far more abundant longer ago still … or at least, much more widespread. Indeed, springbucks have a history going back millions of years and crossing the divides between continents. Early fossils of springbucks have been found in Eurasia, and they might even have evolved there. Their ancestors appear to have separated from those of the gazelles and other antelopes about fifteen million years ago. By four million years ago, they were present in the Atlas mountain region of northern Africa. Soon they were in East Africa, from where they probably reached Southern Africa by using the dry corridors which connected the desert and semi-desert regions of East Africa with those of Southern Africa. These corridors spread during the cool, dry glacial phases of the ice ages, and then contracted and separated again during the warm, moist interglacial periods (in one of which we're living right now). When these regions were connected, species could be interchanged between them, but while they were separated, different populations could evolve independently and ultimately turn into different species. Or some separated populations could go extinct. For some reason, the springbucks of Eurasia, North Africa and East Africa all died out, leaving only the large population in Southern Africa. Today, northern and eastern Africa, and the drier parts of Eurasia, all feature gazelles – very successful in those places, but absent from Southern Africa, where their ecological role is taken over by the springbucks. Springbucks seem to do better in the cooler drylands of the south, compared to the hot, tropical grasslands and deserts now claimed by the gazelles in the north.

Sad to say, the days of near-ubiquity in massive numbers are over for the springbucks. The nail in the coffin was the opening of the South African interior to farmers in the Nineteenth Century. Farms were fenced, livestock were introduced, and springbucks were shot. While they were never hunted to near-extinction, their numbers were hugely reduced, and their movements so curtailed that they can now only migrate on a very small scale. There exist a few hundred thousand springbucks in the whole world today – perhaps only a tenth of the number that could have been found in a single, moving herd not so long ago.

Pouches and Pronking

Let us get to the feature that gave the springbucks their names, both common and scientific. All along the back of the springbuck there's a ridge of fur which usually lies flat, when it's practically invisible, but can be raised into a mane. Right above the tail there's a region of almost brilliant white hairs, usually concealed, lying in a pocket made by two folds. This is the 'pouch' in its scientific name. The springbuck can raise these hairs into a highly visible ball of white fur on its back. This is a display feature, being visible from a long distance. But a springbuck can make this white patch even more visible, by jumping high into the air! This is called 'pronking' (from Afrikaans 'pronk' meaning 'showing off') or also 'stotting'. An animal that pronks, will also keep its legs rigid as it leaps, and arch its back, while raising the tuft of white fur while also puffing out the white fur of its buttocks. This leaping behaviour is also where the Afrikaans name 'springbok' comes from.

This act of display is used mainly by younger springbucks, in the midst of a moving herd. By leaping up as high as they can, they can scan the surroundings. This gives them an idea of their environment and bearings, but also enables them to look out for predators. This is the practically-useful part of the movement; but also it is a form of visual display, for which the patch of white fur is important. An animal pronking in the middle of the herd is visible by many other animals. This may in fact be an appeasement signal of younger towards older animals. But there's also a scent component. The pouch in which the hairs lie when not raised, is lined with scent glands, with which the white hairs become impregnated. When the hairs are raised, this scent is wafted into the air. So the pronking animal also spreads its own scent during the act. In a huge herd, the pronking of many individual springbucks will impress a general 'springbuck scent' upon the entire region they're moving through, which may have a comforting effect on all the animals.

Another time when springbucks may 'pronk' is when they suspect a predator of targeting them. These powerful stiff-legged high-leaps show to predators that an animal is strong and vigorous, as well as being on to them. This might demoralize the predators enough to let them leave the springbucks alone.

Renewing the Herds

Today, springbucks are fairly well conserved and present on many game farms and nature reserves. Their numbers can still recover to their erstwhile abundance, if we let them. Springbucks can breed very rapidly. Unlike many other antelopes, they can breed any time of the year, again depending on the rains and availability of food. A female is fertile at the age of seven months, and can give birth twice in one year, if resources allow her. Only a single lamb is born at a time, after a gestation of about 25 weeks. Its mother hides it for the first couple of days, returning to suckle it; after that, it moves along with her. It is weaned at the age of about four months. Springbucks can live for more than ten years.

While most adult females are actively breeding each year, only a small number of males get to breed. They have to prove their worthiness by acquiring and defending territories. Obviously, this doesn't happen during the time of mass migrations, but in the in-between periods of settled existence in areas that for the while can support them. Males will display to each other and fight for their territories. I once witnessed such a fight. Now a springbuck is not very large, and these two were on the slender side to boot. But they were fighting as if for their lives. They were charging at each other with their horns, locking them together, wrestling each other … one would give up and turn and run and the other would run after him until again they turn and fight once more. The one was so exhausted his tongue was hanging out of his mouth, but still he fought. The strength and endurance displayed was incredible. At one point the one ram, locking his horns with the other, just flicked his neck, a little motion almost too quick to see, and with that tossed the other ram several feet into the air. And when that one landed again, he just kept on fighting. Finally they chased each other out of our viewing distance, so I couldn't tell how much longer the fight lasted, or who won. But it was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen, and demonstrates just how high the stakes are for these antelopes. Males can weaken themselves so much during these territorial disputes, and fail to eat enough, as to put their lives at risk.

Today, the majority of springbucks live on small farms or nature reserves. This is not at all the same as back in the past when they could really roam free. This matter is something that conservationists need to recognize and address more. How animals live, have profound consequences for the issue of evolution and ecology. When antelopes like springbucks have to live in small areas they cannot live lives anywhere as rich as when they truly roam wild and free. Such wild animals become much more familiar with the land in which they live, on scales from small to large. They learn, they develop new behaviours, they even develop what I call animal culture. Such wide-roaming animals that absolutely have to find sustenance for themselves from their environment, will learn about plants, not just food plants … something us humans are only now coming to realize, is that wild animals also learn about medicinal plants and will self-medicate to rid themselves or worms or to cure themselves of many diseases. Free-roaming wild animals learn to interact not just with other members of their own species, but also with members of other species. They need to learn to recognize, avoid and defend themselves from predators. Historically, springbucks have mainly had to contend with cheetahs as predators, but also with leopards, hyenas, lions and wild dogs. Many springbucks living in the present day, never encounter any of those predators, these having been removed from farms and most small nature reserves. Instead, in many places today they only contend with human hunters, against the rifles of whom no behaviour or adaptations can protect them.

Thus, 'wild' animals that actually live in semi-domesticated and human-controlled conditions on farms or intensively-stocked game reserves, simply are poorer in behavioural features than really wild animals, which obviously will make a difference to the ways in which they will evolve subsequently. In short, they will tend to produce less well-tested evolutionary adaptations. The vogue for breeding weird animals, like either black or white or other exotically-coloured springbucks, makes no allowance for whether these features will have any influence on the 'fitness' (ecologically and evolutionarily speaking) of the animals that have them. So I contend that we really, truly and seriously need to think about re-wilding the Earth and to allow as many species as possible to again live truly wild, to move free, to encounter many other species in rich ecologies, to develop 'animal culture', and to evolve under the pressure of ongoing and varied environmental factors towards new patterns that are indeed adaptively beneficial for their own sakes as well as for the ecological networks of which they are parts, not for pleasing humans. This is a tall order, but I feel this we simply have to do, if we wish our Earth to continue being a harmonious home for a rich variety of life – ourselves included.

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