Gnu, which is also commonly referred to as Wildebeest, is an antelope belonging to the genus Connochaetes and can be found in Eastern and Southern Africa. They mainly include two species of large African antelopes under this genus, i.e., the black wildebeest or white-tailed gnu (Connochaetes gnou), and the blue wildebeest or brindled gnu (Connochaetes taurinus). Both of these wildebeest species belong to the family Bovidae and are known to be the most specialized and successful African herbivores which are dominant in plains ecosystems. The family Bovidae also includes antelopes, cattle, goats, sheep, and other even-toed horned ungulates.
Wildebeest antelopes are often found to graze around in mixed herds along with zebras. This as a result is believed to provide a heightened awareness of potential predators. This group of Gnu antelopes also stay alert against the warning signals that are emitted by other animals (for example, baboons). Although being a tourist attraction, these wildebeests are complained of by the farmers for transferring diseases and parasites to their cattle and thus, they always have to compete with other domesticated livestock for pasture.
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On this page, one can find information based on wildebeest animals, their classification, distribution and habitat. A few general characteristics of the gnu animal have also been provided on this page.
Evolution of Gnu Animal
The wildebeest antelope species belonging to the genus Connochaetes are placed under the family Bovidae and subfamily Alcelaphinae. The name of the genus, i.e., Connochaetes was given in 1812 by a German zoologist named Hinrich Lichtenstein.
Gnu antelopes were first discovered in the 1700s by some Dutch settlers on their way to the interior of South Africa. They are named Wild Ox or Wildebeest due to their resemblance with the wild cattle. The blue wildebeests were first known a century later i.e., in the 1800s to westerners in the northern part of South Africa. In the early 20th century, C. albojubatus was identified in eastern Africa as one of the wildebeest species. Later in the year 1914, two separate races of wildebeest animals were introduced. They were named Gorgon a. albojubatus (white-bearded wildebeest") and Gordon. a. mearnsi (white-bearded wildebeest). However, in the year 1939, these two species were again merged into a single race,i.e., Connochaetes taurinus albojubatus.
Again in the mid-20th century, two separate forms i.e., Gorgon taurinus hecki and G. t. albojubatus were recognised. But later, two final and distinct types of Wildebeest species were identified which are today known as – the blue and black wildebeest. The blue wildebeest was initially placed under the genus Gorgon, while on the other hand, the black wildebeest belonged to the genus Connochaetes. But currently, both the two species of Gnu animals are united and plated under the same Genus Connochaetes, with the black wildebeest being named Connochaetes gnou and the blue wildebeest as Connochaetes taurinus.
As per mitochondrial DNA analysis, the black wildebeest are found to have diverged during the Middle Pleistocene from the main lineage which eventually became a distinct species around million years ago. Around 2% divergence rate has been analysed which showed that each species adopted a different ecological niche and was occupied a different trophic level.
On the other hand, the fossils of Blue wildebeest were found to be of 2.5 million years ago which are common and widespread. They were found in the fossil-bearing caves of Johannesburg. Elsewhere in South Africa, these fossils were found in several sites such as Elandsfontein, Cornelia, and Florisbad. The earliest fossils of the black wildebeest date back to 800,000 years ago and were discovered in sedimentary rock in the free state at Cornelia.
Types of Wildebeest Species
The Wildebeest Animal has been Categorised Into Two Species. They are:
Black Wildebeest or White-Tailed Gnu
Out of the two species of Gnu animal, Connochaetes taurinus - the blue wildebeest is the most common species of Gnu that is generally found in the plains and acacia savanna ecosystems ranging from Southeast Africa to Central Kenya. They are known for being highly gregarious and superb adaptable to any migratory existence. The blue wildebeest is also the largest Gnu species of southern Africa weighing 230–275 kg (510–605 pounds) and has a height of 140–152 cm (55–60 inches). They also have high shoulders which slope towards the lower hindquarters. The chest is deep along with a short neck and thin legs.
The blue wildebeest species are slate grey to dark brown in colour. The above body part of the animal has a lighter body colour while the lower part is comparatively darker with black vertical stripes on the forequarters as well as black markings on the forehead, mane, beard and long tail. The horns (in both male and female wildebeest) are similar to that of a cow.
Blue Wildebeest or Brindled Gnu
Connochaetes gnou, commonly known as the black wildebeest, or white-tailed gnu, is comparatively smaller than the blue wildebeest. This wildebeest antelope is smaller in size i.e., 110 kg to 147 kg (240 – 323 pounds) and is 106 cm to 121 cm (42 – 48 inches) in height.
They have a dark brown to black body colour with a conspicuous whitetail, prominent beard and facial tufts. The curved horns of a black wildebeest antelope are considered to be exceptionally dangerous. It generally points forward and is 45 cm to 78 cm (18–31 inches) long.
This Wildebeest species was once considered to be dominant herbivores in the South African Highveld and Karoo region along with the species of blesbok, springbok and quagga (now-extinct).
But in the 19th century, this particular species of gnu animal was hunted nearly to extinction However, at the end of the 20th century, it slowly recovered and is currently numbered around 20,000 which are found on private ranches.
Characteristics of Wildebeest Animal
Some of the general characteristics of the wildebeest animals are as follows:
Both the species of wildebeest are greyish-brown in colour resembling cattle. They are even-toed, horned and have broad muzzles, Roman nose, shaggy manes and tails.
The male species are larger than the females. But both the sexes have heavy forequarters as compared to their hindquarters.
The black and blue wildebeest antelopes are found to be morphologically different. It is due to the difference in the orientation and curvature of their horns as well as their coat colour.
The blue wildebeest is the bigger one among the two Gnu species. In the case of males blue wildebeest, the average height of this species is 150 cm (at the shoulder) and has a minimum weight of 250 kg. The black wildebeest, on the other hand, stands at 111 cm to 120 cm tall.
Gnu Animal - Habitat and Distribution
Wildebeest animals are mostly found to inhabit parts of plains and open woodlands of the Sahara, South Africa. The black wildebeest species is widely distributed in the southernmost parts of the continent which mostly includes South Africa, Eswatini, and Lesotho. But later in the 19th century, this species of Wildebeest was hunted to near extinction in the latter two countries.
The Black Gnu was again reintroduced to these countries along with Namibia, where it has become well established.
This particular species often prefers inhabiting the open plains, grasslands, and Karoo shrub lands at altitudes ranging between 1,350 meters to 2,150 meters (4,430 feet to 7,050 feet) in both steep mountainous regions as well as lower undulating hills.
However, due to widespread hunting, the distribution of black wildebeest is now largely limited to game farms and protected reserves and hence, it no longer occupies its historical range or makes migrations. In the past, this species was widely distributed in the highveld temperate grasslands during the dry winter season and in the Karoo region during the rains.
The blue wildebeest, on the other hand, is a native species of eastern and southern Africa. It is mainly distributed in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Angola. The Blue wildebeest are mainly found inhabiting short grass plains which border the bush-covered acacia savannas. They can be found widely in overgrazed areas with dense bush as well as in the open woodland flood plains. They also prefer thriving in areas that are neither too wet nor too dry.
The blue wildebeest is the most abundantly found species of Gnu in the East Africa region, both in population and biomass. Therefore, it is considered a notable feature of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia.
Breeding in Wildebeest Species
With their blunt muzzle and a wide row of incisor teeth, common wildebeests are able to feed efficiently and in dense aggregations on the short grasses that carpet plains in the semi-arid zone during the rainy season. Being water-dependent and searching for green grass, they migrate when the rains end and spend the dry season roaming the acacia savanna, where there is water, taller grass that stays green longer, and flushes of new grass come up after fires or local thunderstorms. All the Gnu species do not involve in making permanent pairs during the mating season, but rather, the male Gnus try to attract the females by establishing temporary territories which are about 3,000 square metres. The male Gnus try defending these territories while competing for females that are coming into oestrus. One of the techniques that are used by the male partners while attracting the female wildebeest is the use of grunts and distinctive behaviour to entice females into their territories. The breeding season usually starts at the end of the rainy season (between May and July) when the animals are well-fed and are at their peak of fitness. While the birthing usually takes place at the start of the wet season (between January and March).
Wildebeest females ovulate spontaneously where the estrous cycle lasts for 23 days and the gestation period lasts for 250 to 260 days. The calves weigh about 21 kg (46 lb) at the time of birth. Instead of hiding for days or weeks, the gnu calves are found to accompany their mothers as soon as they are able to stand on their own. Unlike all other antelopes, this is a process of their adaptation to migrating. Gnu, therefore, is considered to be the most precocious of all hoofed mammals.
A group of young calves and female wildebeests are often found to live together in the small territories established by the male Gnus. When these groups join together, the ratio of female wildebeest to male wildebeest is found to be higher as the females often choose to move to the areas that are held by a smaller number of male wildebeests. This female-dominated sex ratio may also be a result of illegal hunting and human disturbance, with higher male mortality having been attributed to hunting.
Wildebeest helps in increasing soil fertility with their excreta and thus benefits the ecosystem. They are also a major source of tourist attraction and hence are economically important for human beings. However, the wildebeest can also cause a negative impact on humans. They can be competitors of commercial livestock and thus, can easily transmit diseases causing epidemics among several animals, particularly domestic cattle. They are also reported to spread ticks, lungworms, tapeworms, flies, and paramphistome flukes.