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An Adult Male Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros)

An Adult Male Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros)

The greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) is a magnificent large antelope which ranges down the east coast of Africa from the Red Sea to South Africa; and west through southern Africa to the Atlantic coast. Kudus are both browsers and grazers—they eat grasses, shoots, and leaves; but also fruit, roots, and tubers. They live in woodlands and dense scrubland where they conceal themselves amidst the thick vegetation. These antelopes are large: males weigh from 200 to 270 kilograms (430–600 pounds) and can stand 1.6 meters (5.25 feet) tall at the shoulder (although females are substantially smaller). Males have shaggy neck manes and huge elaborate spiral horns upon their noble heads. They use these horns for fighting, sexual display, and (possibly) fending off predators. When “uncurled” greater kudu horns can measure up to 1.5 meters or more (this strange maximalist manner of measurement seems to have been invented by (male) big game hunters).

A herd of greater kudus (female)

A herd of greater kudus (female)

One would not necessarily imagine that a 600 pound animal with giant corkscrew swords on its head would need to hide, yet the greater kudus live in a horrifying world of lions, hyenas, leopards, African hunting dogs, and cheetahs (to say nothing of omnipresent human hunters armed with every manner of inventive weapons). Fortunately, the kudus’ mixed brown coats with beautiful white syrup stripes allow them to melt ghost-like into the dry scrub, small woods, and forests of their vast habitat. If there was an adult greater kudu skulking in your rose garden, you probably wouldn’t notice it.

Addo_National_Park_-_Grand_koudou

Female kudus and their calves form together in little herds of half a dozen to two dozen individuals. Bachelor males form even smaller herds and mature males are solitary. Mating season occurs just after the rainy season. Males fight each other for dominance and then dominant males trail after females making plaintive guttural moans. Eight months later, when the grass and vegetation is at its peak, females give birth to a solitary calf (or occasionally two). There are three (or possibly four) subspecies of these majestic animals occupying slightly different ranges (as seen in the map below). Although hunting (and poaching) and habitat loss have effected the greater kudu, the great antelope have also benefited from irrigation, wells, and reservoirs. They are not endangered—or even threatened—so the world should be able to benefit from these exquisite adaptable antelopes for a long time to come!

Range of Subspecies of Greater Kudus

Range of Subspecies of Greater Kudus

 

Wooly Rhinoceros by Charles Knight (Los Angeles Natural History Museum)

Wooly Rhinoceros by Charles Knight (Los Angeles Natural History Museum)

Sadly, today the rhinoceroses are few on the ground.  There are only five extant species of the family Rhinocerotidae and none of them are doing well–because of habitat loss and humankind’s obdurate (and extraordinarily foolish) belief that rhino horns have magical supernatural powers. Yet once the rhinos were a mighty force—in fact, the largest land mammal ever, the Paraceratherium, was a sort of rhino.  There used to be multiple tribes of Rhinocerotidae, each containing numerous genera (which could in turn contain dozens of species) of these great horned perissodactyls. None of the extinct rhinos was more splendid that the magnificent wooly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) which roamed Eurasia during the icy Pleistocene epoch and even survived (probably) up until the beginnings of human civilization.

The comparative size of a Wooly Rhinoceros

The comparative size of a Wooly Rhinoceros

A wooly rhinoceros was a substantial creature.  From fossils and mummified remains, we know they measured around 3 to 3.8 metres (10 to 12.5 feet) in length, and had an estimated weight of around 2,700–3,200 kg (5,999–7,000 lb)—so they were not much smaller than the still-living white rhinoceros (although wooly rhinoceroses are more closely related to the contemporary Sumatran rhinos—which do not become so big and heavy).  As you might guess from the name, wooly rhinoceroses had magnificent hairy coats to help them survive the cold and they had two large horns for defense and for mating displays.  For a long time, paleontologists have argued about whether the Coelodontas grazed grasses or browsed on tender shoots, berries, and mosses, but paleobotanical evidence (taken in tandem with fossilized skeletal features) now seems to indicate they were browsers, like bison or cows.

Wooly Rhinoceros (Illustration by Charles R. Knight, National Geographic)

Wooly Rhinoceros (Illustration by Charles R. Knight, National Geographic)

Wooly rhinos roamed the frozen steppes of Eurasia–a habitat which was much larger in those days due to the ice age and the lower sea levels of the Pleistocene.  For example, wooly rhinos could be found on the dry & icy wastelands of Southern England and they thundered across the cold plains which would later become the fertile hunting lands of Doggerland (which are now submerged beneath the North Sea).  They were also prevalent across northern Europe and down through Central Asia all the way to the Tibetan Plateau.

Wooly Rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago)

Wooly Rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago)

Based on cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago, humankind seems to have had an early fascination with these great furry beasts.  Unfortunately the last wooly rhinos apparently went extinct around eight to ten thousand years ago (according to somewhat disputed carbon 14 readings from a specimen found frozen in the Siberian permafrost).  Many large species of Paleocene megafauna died off at approximately the same time: whether the great behemoths went extinct from humanity’s increasingly effective hunting, climate change, or from some great pandemic which affected large animals is unclear (although contemporary scientists have been inclining towards climate change as a primary cause).

Woolly Rhinoceros Hunt (diorama from Horniman Museum, London)

Woolly Rhinoceros Hunt (diorama from Horniman Museum, London)

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