There are some strange and amazing animals in the world. People tend to know a lot about species like big cats, bears, giraffes, and rhinos. But would you know a hirola from a sitatunga, or a duiker from a markhor? Read on and find out about the fascinating lives of hoofed animals you may never have heard of before!
Hirola (pronounced “hir-OH-la”)
A hirola walks into a bar. The bartender asks, “Why the long face?”
Say hello to the hirola, an antelope that does, indeed, have an elongated head and snout, crowned with sturdy horns in the shape of a lyre. Found on the dry grass plains and semi-deserts along the southeastern coast of Kenya and Somalia, these critically endangered antelope are designed to beat the heat in a climate where droughts are a frequent challenge. For one thing, they are very good at storing fat, which helps when food is scarce. They also have a low activity level and are fairly sedentary to save energy. Even males defending their territory don’t get too rowdy: they tend to posture on “stomping grounds,” scraping at the dirt and bobbing their heads, to warn off rivals. It takes a lot to get them riled up enough for an actual fight with horns—and even then, they kneel down to face each other first!
Tahr (pronounced “tar”)
What in “tahr-nation”?
Since it lives in the remote woodlands of the Himalayan Mountains, not too many people have encountered a Himalayan tahr. Measuring about 3 feet at the shoulder and weighing up to 180 pounds, these sturdy, sure-footed sheep are astoundingly nimble as they leap among rocky cliffs. They are shy, wary, and difficult to approach, and they can speedily flee even across impossible-looking terrain. It takes something equally agile—like a snow leopard, their main predator—to catch one of these acrobats. Tahr are also a hardy species, growing a woolly coat and dense undercoat to ward off the frigid assault of winter in the Himalayas.
Lechwe (pronounced “LECH-way”)
Not all antelope live on the savanna. Some are swimmers!
The lechwe lives in the floodplains of southern Africa, where it grazes on water plants while wading up to its shoulders. To stay sure-footed on slippery, boggy ground, lechwe have long, narrow, and flexible hooves, and their coat is rough and oily to help shed water and stay dry next to the skin. Herds move along with the seasonal floods, so males don’t establish regular territories. Instead, the lechwe “lek”: a group of males clusters in a patch within a common “arena,” surrounded by a large herd of females. Rather like Roman gladiators, the males challenge and compete with one another in the arena, and the triumphant ones win access to breeding with the females. Excelsior!
Muntjac (pronounced “MUNT-jack”)
Is this an antelope, a deer—or a dog?
The muntjac is a surprising little animal. First of all, muntjacs bark: a loud, sharp alarm call that they may use to warn others nearby, or tell a predator that it has been spotted. Secondly, male muntjacs have tusk-like canine teeth, which can grow up to one inch long and are sharp weapons used in fights. Muntjacs even eat some meat, feeding on carrion if they find it. But the muntjac isn’t a cousin of dogs—it is a species of deer. About 16 inches at the shoulder and weighing 25 to 35 pounds, it lives in the forests of southern China and Taiwan. Except for breeding, it is a solitary species, and both males and females defend small territories, guarding their resources and chasing off competitors.
Markhor (pronounced “MAR-kor”)
It’s hard to miss a markhor. The impressive, tightly curled, corkscrew-like horns of this wild goat species can grow up to 10 inches long in females and a whopping 64 inches in males. That’s a lot of head gear! It comes in handy during breeding season, when the males fight for breeding rights. Their competitions involve lunging at one another and locking horns, followed by the combatants twisting and pushing in an attempt to make the other lose his balance. Considering that they are doing this on precarious, rocky cliffsides in the western Himalayas, it can be nerve-wracking to watch. Markhors are incredibly nimble and sure-footed, however, and they race along the mountainside undaunted by a potential hundred-foot drop.
Dik-dik (rhymes with “pick-pick”)
Okay—stop snickering. Yes, that’s its name, from its alarm call, which sounds like “tzik-tzik” or “dik-dik.”
Measuring only about 16 inches at the shoulder and weighing only 6 to 14 pounds, the diminutive dik-dik is an antelope species that excels at hiding in thick brush from predators like lions, leopards, hyenas, and jackals. Found in eastern and southwestern Africa, mated pairs defend a territory of 12 to 75 acres in size, and use well-defined trails through the brush, which they mark with a secretion from a gland near their eyes. Dik-diks feed on leaves, buds, shoots, and fruits and get most of their water from their food. They have a particular—and rather humorous—feature that helps them feed and stay cool: a flexible and prehensile nose. It may look a bit silly when twitched and wiggled, but the nose is strong enough to grasp and pull leaves and stems from plants to eat, and when the animal pants, the nose can release heat, as well.
Takin (pronounced “TAH-kin”)
We’re talkin’ takins.
When visitors to the Zoo see the takins, they often say “What IS that?” Measuring about 4 feet at the shoulder and up to 7 feet long, and weighing up to about 750 pounds, this stocky, shaggy animal with a big, rounded nose and pointy, curling horns is hard to place. It doesn’t look like an antelope, or a horse. Could it be some kind of cattle? It is often described as looking like it’s made from miscellaneous parts of other animals, and biologist George Schaller once described its appearance as a “bee-stung moose.” There’s definitely nothing else like it! Taxonomically speaking, the takin is considered a “goat-antelope,” part of the Bovidae family—which includes antelope, wild cattle, and wild sheep and goats—but it has its own genus (Budorcas). Takins live in the Himalayas and in the forest-covered mountains of western China. Their short, strong legs and broad hooves speak to their prowess in climbing, leaping, and negotiating rocky cliffs in their mountain terrain. The big nose helps warm cold air before it gets to the takin’s lungs, and the thick coat of fur sheds water and keeps in warmth. They may look odd, but takins are well adapted to their world.
Duiker (pronounced “DYE-ker”)
Found in the forests of western and central Africa, this low-slung antelope species’ name is an Afrikaans word meaning “to dive,” which describes its habit of diving into thick brush when danger threatens. Everything about this antelope is designed for life in the thickets, from its narrow head and elongated, torpedo-like body shape to its smooth, slender horns that are in line with the forehead and curve backward and down—they won’t get caught on branches as the animal darts through vegetation. Because they are so good at dashing and disappearing, not much is known about their social behavior; mated pairs may share a home range. Whether they defend a territory or not is unclear, but they do mark it, with secretions from a gland near their eyes. They are known to help seed the environment they depend on—in addition to plant leaves and stems, duikers eat fruits, often swallowing them whole, and then depositing the seeds with nice bit of fertilizer to help them grow.
Gaur (rhymes with “sour”)
You don’t want to mess with me.
If you happen to be wandering in the woodlands of India, Indochina, or the Malay Peninsula and come upon a herd of gaur—back up slowly and go the other way! Measuring up to 7 feet at the shoulder and weighing between 1,500 and 2,200 pounds, these wild cattle command respect, and they don’t tolerate intruders. They live in herds led by an adult male, and, apparently, size matters—there isn’t much tussling among males during breeding season, since the biggest male is dominant. Males have a resonant mating call that can be heard for nearly a mile, and those lower in the hierarchy may occasionally tempt females away from the main herd. Gaur congregate near waterholes in the dry season, and then disperse more widely when the monsoon rains arrive. Even though they’re huge, gaur can dash and crash into the jungle in a hurry if threatened—and woe to anything that gets in the way. Moral of the story: never surprise a gaur.
Pudu (rhymes with “to do”)
The mini deer of South America.
Hiding level: expert. The pudu is compact, 12 to 14 inches at the shoulder, and only 20 to 30 pounds—so good luck finding one in their rain forest and bamboo thicket habitat! These little deer live a solitary lifestyle in southern Chile and Argentina, feeding on leaves, twigs, bark, buds, fruit, and seeds. Being short of stature, they often stand upright on their hind legs or jump up onto fallen logs in order to reach some tasty vegetation. They are very wary of predators, sniffing the breeze often to detect anything coming their way. If they get surprised, they run in a zig-zag pattern through the brush to confuse their pursuer. The dainty little spikes on the male pudu’s head may look like horns, but they are actually antlers—a telltale sign that these are deer, not antelope.
Sitatunga (pronounced “sit-a-TUN-ga”)
Count snorkeling among its talents.
Spending most of its time among boggy papyrus beds in swamps and marshes in central and western Africa, the sitatunga is made for its semi-aquatic life. This antelope’s hooves are long and narrow, with flexible toe joints that give them gripping power and sure footing in mud and soft soil. Its shaggy fur is water resistant, and it is an excellent swimmer, deliberately choosing to flee into deep water when threatened. Sitatunga will even snorkel to outwit predators—submerging themselves completely underwater, with only their nostrils above the waterline. They tend to live singly or in small, all-female groups, feeding on leaves, buds, shoots, fruit, reeds, and grasses in their marshy home.
Karen Worley is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global.