DOES A FEMALE ANTELOPE HAVE HORNS?
June 26, 2011
turn down an opportunity to read a journal called Gnusletter, a
publication of the Antelope Specialist Group of the International Union
for Conservation of Nature? Gnu is the African name for wildebeest, from
the rather unimaginative Dutch name meaning "wild beast." Gnus
are one of the 140 species in the true antelope family, the Bovidae.
Antelopes are distinguished from other hoofed animals such as deer, pigs,
and horses by having unbranched horns. Ironically, the American bison,
aka buffalo, is in the family of "true antelopes" whereas the
pronghorn antelope of the American Southwest is not. Familiar members
of the antelope family are sheep, goats, and cattle. Most people have
also heard of African gazelles and impalas, as well as muskoxen of Arctic
tundra regions. The size range within the family is impressive. Cattle
known as gaur, of Southeast Asia, are the largest, reaching a shoulder
height of nearly 7 feet and weighing more than a ton. The tiniest are
African royal antelopes, which are about the size of a 6-pound house cat.
According to the ASG, Gnusletter "is intended as a medium
of communication on issues that concern the management and conservation
of antelopes both in the wild and in captivity." Since the Gnusletter's
inception in 1982, 65 issues have been published, with a primary focus
on threatened and endangered antelope species of Africa and Asia. In addition
to reports on the status of different species, the publication allows
ASG members and others "to communicate their experiences, ideas,
and perceptions freely, so that the conservation of antelopes can benefit."
A recent issue of Gnusletter reported on the status of various
species, such as the decline of sable antelopes in their natural range
in Kenya and the increase in population size of the Tibetan antelope in
China. The most intriguing article was written by Richard D. Estes, an
expert on African mammals and the founder of Gnusletter. The article
is a well-written rebuttal to a published hypothesis that the horns on
females evolved as weapons against predators, which at first glance seems
like a reasonable assumption.
covers wide-ranging behavioral literature about animals with horns and
considers extensive biological and evolutionary nuances. But his basic
premise is that when females of species in the antelope family have horns,
they did not evolve for purposes of defense for themselves or their offspring.
Most antelopes use their speed to escape predators rather than staying
to fight them. Even males of most horned species of antelope and deer
use their horns for male-male combat rather than predator defense. Estes
maintains that when both sexes have horns, it reduces "male despotic
competition toward developing males." The behavioral concepts involved
are complex, but the essence is that adult males tend to attack young
males and drive them away. But dominant males are less likely to be provoked
into attacking a young male if it looks and acts similar to young females,
including both having horns. If juvenile males are not driven away, they
can stay for a longer period with their mothers and have the benefits
of herd protection. Once young males leave a herd, their horns continue
growing and they assume distinctively male behavior patterns; the same
is not true of females.
how his hypothesis could be tested in the wild by studies among species
to determine when young males leave female herds and what the survival
rate is of offspring of horned and hornless females. His rationale for
not conducting the field studies himself was sensible"both
on account of my advanced age (83) and on the labor of writing a book
on the behavioral ecology of the Serengeti wildebeest population."
He invites "any antelope specialist or other biologist" who
wants to pursue such a study to contact him via email.
I am looking
forward to reading a book on the Serengeti wildebeest, aka gnu, for which
Richard Estes has provided insights and suggestions. He clearly knows
more about antelopes than anyone else in the world.
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