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Getting To Know The Wildebeest

Updated: May 29

This blog about wildebeest was written by Ella Dean. Special topic blogs are written by Bushwise students during their course, and all facts included are based on their research.

Read time: 4 mins


What IS a wildebeest? 

Well, they are in fact antelope and part of the Bovidae family, they are grazing herbivores and one of the most abundant antelope in Southern Africa. They can run up to around 80km/h and over 1.5 million wildebeest take part in the great migration each year. They are also a part of Africa’s Ugly 5 – which I believe is totally unfair. 


So, why do they look so cool? They’re a natural cocktail of anatomical features. Heads that resemble a cow, body and tail of a horse, and the legs of a gazelle. All of these aspects along with strong genetics and blood lines make them one of the most successful mammals in Africa. 


Blue vs black wildebeest

As of this moment, there are two different species of wildebeest. The blue wildebeest, Connochaetes taurinus, and the black wildebeest, Connochaetes gnou. There are a couple of notable physical differences that we can observe, mainly their size – black wildebeest are shorter – the shape of the horns – black wildebeest have horns that point outwards which is a sign of their more aggressive nature – and of course the colour of the coat – where their names come from. The blue wildebeest have five official subspecies, while the black currently have no named subspecies. 


The behavioural differences are slightly more profound. The black wildebeest do not migrate as the blue do, and so are much more territorial. Mature black wildebeest bulls set up their own territories through which female herds often pass. These territories are maintained throughout the year. 


Protected by laws in South Africa, the black and blue wildebeest cannot be on the same property or reserve. The two species both share similar territories and are genetically close enough to be able to reproduce with one another. However, as the black wildebeest is smaller than the blue wildebeest, black bulls often get chased away from breeding with both black and blue cows, which threatens the survival of the black wildebeest subspecies.

 

Golden wildebeest

a golden wildebeest in the open grass

This is the golden gnu – another native African name for wildebeest. A common misconception is that they are a mix between blue and black wildebeest. It is in fact a genetic morph of the blue wildebeest. 


The first golden wildebeest bull was captured by Alec Rough in the early 1990s on the game farm Swinburne, in the Limpopo Valley, the area where the majority of Golden Wildebeest originate from. They formed an integral part of the large migratory herds that moved freely from South Africa to Botswana. 


The Great Migration

 The blue are part of the Great Migration which I mentioned early. It is the largest overland migration in the world. The herds move in a clockwise direction up from the south of the Serengeti, briefly leaving Tanzania to spend time in the Masai Mara in the north, before heading back to start the journey again. 

Wildebeest migrating in the season of the great migration

During the migration, it is estimated that about 250,000 wildebeest die every year as a result of predation, drowning, thirst and exhaustion. These animals have only one thing in mind, and that is the finish. They will stop at nothing. This causes many erosive and destructive issues along their course. 


The science behind a wildebeest’s sneeze 

Another interesting thing to know about wildebeest is their parasitic relationship with bot flies – more specifically, nasal bot flies. Nasal bot flies are obligate parasites; this means they cannot complete their life cycle without parasitising their hosts. When nasal bot flies inhabit an animal it is known as myiasis – the parasitic infestation of the body of a live animal by fly larvae (maggots) that grow inside the host while feeding on its tissue.


How do they get inside a wildebeest you might ask.


So, let’s do a timeline. Bot flies lay their eggs on grass, the wildebeest then eat the grass and pick up the bot fly eggs in their nose. The ova hatch and the larvae migrate throughout the nasal cavity and sinuses, feeding on mucus and debris. Once the larvae complete their growing phase, they migrate back to the nasal cavity where they are sneezed out. And as we may have all noticed, and might have overlooked, wildebeest are often found sneezing and shaking their heads quite a bit. Something you can look out for the next time you see them doing this. 


The bot flies create lesions in the brain, cardiovascular system, eyes and sinuses. Although this may all seem very dramatic, no serious harm is done to the host in most cases. And so, although this is currently considered a parasitic relationship, with evolution and time, it may soon be considered commensalism instead.  


So as you can see wildebeest are pretty amazing animals. And they play an important part in the ecosystem and are far more interesting than you might have thought. So next time you see one, take a few minutes to admire these creatures – and look out for their sneezes. 


Join us out here at Bushwise to learn more unusual and interesting facts about all the creatures – big and really small – that call the South African bush home. 


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