Tetrapod Zoology

Welcome to day 2 of Stuffed Megamammal Week! [day 1 here]. This time round, it’s an eland. The individual’s slim, pointed ears and prominent forehead tuft show that it’s a Common eland Taurotragus oryx rather than a Giant or Derby’s eland T. derbianus. Elands are the largest antelopes, weighing up to a ton.

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I love elands: like certain other artiodactyls, they have inherited such things as distinctive colour patches, hair tufts, manes and dewlaps, but have developed them to an extreme, such that they are now super-endowed, flamboyant, extreme members of their group. In a fine, fully mature male Common eland, a gigantic curtain-like dewlap can hang down to below the wrists, a dark, brush-like tuft may extend prominently from the forehead, pale vertical stripes decorate the flanks, a dark tan patch draws attention to the massive, thick neck, and further decoration is provided by a shoulder mane, the straight, spiralling horns and dark elbow patches. The male specimen shown here was not a particularly flamboyant individual, as none of its features are well developed. It is very unusual in lacking the dark elbow patches: I presume this is because of sun bleaching (note that the pale stripes are also absent).

A particularly interesting claim made about eland is that they grow continuously (albeit slowly) throughout maturity, becoming bigger and heavier all the while. Elsewhere among big mammals, continuous growth is well known for elephants: in elands, it has been put down to the fact that they operate on a hierarchical social system, where complex dominance patterns are in play and territoriality is not. In territorial antelopes, full size is reached at maturity and that’s pretty much it [image below from wikipedia].

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The dark hair tuft on the forehead is also pretty much unique among large antelopes (though Addax Addax nasomaculatus have a brown forehead tuft). It might be associated with a scent gland, but the males also cover it in urine (both their own and that of other animals like elephants) and mud. Another interesting thing about eland is that their limb joints are reported to make clicking noises as they walk (Spinage 1986). Presumably this results from pseudocavitation: the same process that operates in my knees when I go up stairs (for a previous discussion of pseudocavitation in mammal joints see this article on rorqual jaws). Incidentally, this is not unique among artiodactyls. Some deer also make joint-cracking noises every time they walk (this is normal for the species concerned and not limited to individuals with damaged joints, as it is in us humans). UPDATE: see Colin’s comment below, and the free pdf he links to (Bro-Jørgsen & Dabelsteen 2008). Amazing!

Finally, there has been a lot of interest in domesticating eland, and efforts to do this
have been made in Russia and in various parts of Africa. I have to note in passing the title of one of Christopher Lever’s books: They Dined on Eland (Lever 1992). Eland milk and meat tastes good, but they are hard to keep in enclosures because of their strength and their jumping abilities: despite their size (and, maybe, because of it), they are well able to leap over barriers 1.5 m or so high. The word ‘eland’ derives from the Dutch meaning elk and, while eland are generally regarded as forming their own genus (Taurotragus) within the spiral-horned antelope clade (Tragelaphini), at least some studies find them to be nested within Tragelaphus, the genus that includes kudus, nyala, bushbucks and so on (Price et al. 2005). Taurotragus x Tragelaphus hybrids are known (Van Gelder 1977).

Another one tomorrow!

Refs – -

Bro-Jørgsen, J. & Dabelsteen, T. 2008. Knee-clicks and visual traits indicate fighting ability in eland antelopes: multiple messages and back-up signals. BMC Biology 2008, 6: 47 doi:10.1186/1741-7007-6-47

Lever, C. 1992. They Dined on Eland. Quiller Press, London.

Pappas, L. A. 2002. Taurotragus oryx. Mammalian Species 689, 105.

Price, S. A., Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P. & Gittleman, J. L. 2005. A complete phylogeny of the whales, dolphins and even-toed hoofed mammals (Cetartiodactyla). Biological Reviews 80, 445-473.

Spinage, C. A. 1986. The Natural History of Antelopes. Christopher Helm, London.

Van Gelder, R. G. 1977. An eland x kudu hybrid, and the content of the genus Tragelaphus. The Lammergeyer 23 May 1977, 1-6.

Comments

  1. #1 Dartian
    April 7, 2009

    More posts on neglected antelope species? Great!

    The dark hair tuft on the forehead is also pretty much unique (though Addax Addax nasomaculatus have a brown forehead tuft).

    The dik-diks have funky hair tufts on their heads too.

  2. #2 Dartian
    April 7, 2009

    Better dik-dik image here.

  3. #3 Hai~Ren
    April 7, 2009

    Ah yes, eland, yet another common antelope that is woefully under-represented in wildlife documentaries.

  4. #4 The Ridger
    April 7, 2009

    Nice. Coming out of a horsey background, I was baffled for a moment by your use of “wrist” for what I’d call the “knee”, though intellectually I know that forelimb joint isn’t a knee, really.

  5. #5 The Ridger
    April 7, 2009

    ps – Meant to say, you’re almost certainly right about the fading. I remember reading about Sheridan’s horse (black) fading to yellow and having to be dyed after it was stuffed and displayed.

  6. #6 Christopher Taylor
    April 7, 2009

    remember reading about Sheridan’s horse (black) fading to yellow and having to be dyed after it was stuffed and displayed.

    “El Negro”, Maison Verreaux’s stuffed BaTswana man, had his skin coloured with boot-black. While the darkness of the final coloration was unnaturally exaggerated, the main original motive was probably to compensate for bleaching as a result of the taxidermic preparation.

  7. #7 Colin
    April 7, 2009

    For interest, research published last year indicates that the volume and dominant frequency of knee-clicking in male eland functions as an honest signal of body size.

    http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7007/6/47

  8. #8 Allen Hazen
    April 7, 2009

    And, in addition to their “distinctive color patches, hair tufts, manes and dewlaps”… elands are just magnificent creatures! Thanks, Darren, for posting about them!

    On the etymological theme of my comment on yesterday’s post: European languages just don’t have the resources to talk about antelope! Not only is the common name, “eland,’ from a word for elk, but the Linnean name “Taurotragus” is, like many other antelope generics, cobbled together from words for Artiodactyls better known to Europeans: “Bull-goat”! Which, we are told, can interbreed with Tragelaphus, “Goat-deer”.

  9. #9 Dartian
    April 7, 2009

    Allen:

    European languages just don’t have the resources to talk about antelope!

    Hmm. Does anyone know if the word saiga is originally Russian, or a loanword from some other language?

  10. #10 Jerzy
    April 7, 2009

    Herbert Wendt proposes that Renaissance Europeans believed that all exotic animals are, in fact, varieties or hybrids of European ones. On account that all animals must have come recently from one location where Noah’s Ark landed.

    So kaama in Latin is Alcelaphus or moose-deer hybrid and giant anteater in German is Ameisenbaer or ant(eating) bear.

    After some more animal discoveries this belief came to an end, but the names remained.

  11. #11 Jerzy
    April 7, 2009

    Allen: we at least have sitatunga, bongo, kaama, kongoni, dikdik, addax, topi, korrigum, beira, oribi, dibatag, lechwe and other African names which are wonderfully cryptic to non-zoologist.

  12. #12 Lars Dietz
    April 7, 2009

    “Herbert Wendt proposes that Renaissance Europeans believed that all exotic animals are, in fact, varieties or hybrids of European ones.”
    I don’t think that is strictly true, animals like tigers and elephants were never regarded as varieties of anything European. But it is of course correct that Europeans named most newly discovered non-European animals after similar ones that were familiar to them. Some 18th century naturalists such as Buffon claimed that many so-called species were just local varieties. He gave the example of shrikes, but most of the species he mentioned as being varieties of the Great Grey Shrike aren’t even shrikes in today’s sense.
    As for the compound names, Tragelaphus is originally the name of a Greek mythical animal, allegedly from the Caucasus, that was depicted as a goat-deer hybrid. It might have been based on inaccurate reports of antelopes. Most of the other ones were created in the early 19th century, when names like that were fashionable especially among French zoologists (Alcelaphus was named by Blainville). There are also lots of bird genera with names like this, such as Anseranas, Certhilauda, Pyrrhuloxia etc. This probably had something to do with the then common belief in the continuity of nature, which implied that all taxa should be connected with their closest relatives by intermediates.
    By the way, my favorite is still the scientific name for the nilgai: Boselaphus tragocamelus, “cattle-deer goat-camel”.
    Something else: Didn’t Richard Owen propose introducing eland to Britain?

  13. #13 Darren Naish
    April 7, 2009

    Such excellent comments, thank you all.

    Lars: Owen did indeed hope that ‘we might one day see troops of elands gracefully galloping over our green sward, and herds of Koodoos [sic], and other representatives of the antelope family, which are so numerous in Africa, not only enjoying their existence in English parks, but added to the list of food good for the inhabitants of not only England, but Europe in general’ (Buckland, in Lever 1992, pp. 26-27). In an 1860 letter to The Times, Owen wrote about the virtues of eland meat, concluding ‘It is not too much to expect that in twenty years eland venison will be at least an attainable article of food … and … it is quite possible that before the expiration of the century it may be removed from the category of animals of luxury to the more solid and useful list of the farm’.

    A great deal more information of this sort can be found in Lever’s book (cited above): it tells the fascinating stories of acclimatisation societies all around the world and is a must-read if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

  14. #14 Lars Dietz
    April 7, 2009

    Thanks! I read this somewhere in a book on introduced animals but I didn’t remember the details.

  15. #15 David Marjanović
    April 7, 2009

    The word ‘eland’ derives from the Dutch meaning elk

    In case any North Americans read this: to you, that’s moose (Alces alces), not elk (wapiti – Cervus canadensis, almost the same as the European-to-central-Siberian red deer).

  16. #16 Hai~Ren
    April 7, 2009

    Don’t forget Hippotragus: ‘horse-antelope’.

    I have to admit, some of the African antelope have really exotic-sounding names… kudu, nyala, sitatunga, bongo, eland, rhebok, kob, puku, lechwe, impala, hirola, blesbok, bontebok, topi, tiang, korrigum, tsessebe, kongoni, korkay, tora, kanki, lelwel, khama, nkonzi, gemsbok, suni, grysbok, steenbok, oribi, klipspringer, dik-dik, beira, dibatag, gerenuk, springbok, and duiker. I know some are derived from Afrikaans, but I think some originate from local names.

  17. #17 Seabold
    April 7, 2009

    I remember reading years ago…and I’m not sure now if it was about domesticated reindeer or wild caribou…but either way, they claimed that the tendons in the legs made a peculiar sound when trotting so that a herd of animals sounded like tiny bells ringing.

  18. #18 Zach Miller
    April 7, 2009

    Elands are awesome. Huge, too. My dad went bowhunting in Africa a long time ago, and his hunting partner (who was using a gun) nabbed an eland. His guide took a picture of him sitting next to the downed beast, and I was blown away by the sheer size of the antelope.

    What’d my dad get with his bow? A warthog, bushbuck, and…the antelope with the spiraling horns.

  19. #19 Hai~Ren
    April 7, 2009

    Zach Miller: “the antelope with the spiraling horns.”

    Kudu? Which part of Africa did he visit, anyway? If it was southern Africa it would most likely be greater kudu.

  20. #20 Zach Miller
    April 7, 2009

    Zimbabwe, I believe. And kudu sounds about right.

  21. #21 Jerzy
    April 7, 2009

    My apologies – generally, animals known in Antiquity (which would include elephants, tigers, crocodiles etc).

    BTW, domesticated elands should be still living in Askania Nova reserve, today’s Ukraine. I’m sure internet trawl would get more info about Soviet attempts to domesticate everything – from eland thru capercaille thru sable (mink) to moose.

  22. #22 Jerzy
    April 7, 2009

    PS – I think elands in USSR were not just kept for meat (said to be excellent) but also milked.

  23. #23 Mo Hassan
    April 7, 2009

    Haha, on my visit to Whipsnade today, I kept saying “eland” whenever I saw a large antelope, even if I knew it was a kudu or roan before I checked… must’ve been a premonition of today’s Tetzoo post!

  24. #24 Barry Elledge
    April 8, 2009

    The comments about domestication of elands bring up a somewhat controversial issue regarding human prehistory. In the influential book “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Jared Diamond attempts to explain away differences in development among disparate human cultures by proposing that only a few geographic locations possessed the necessary resources needed for advancing beyond paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Among other factors, Diamond claims that plants appropriate for cultivation and animals suitable for domestication existed only in a few locations, notably the middle east and parts of Asia. Thus the absence of domestic animals other than dogs and camelids (perhaps turkeys as well) in the Americas, and of domesticated species endemic to tropical Africa, Australia and New Guinea, are explained by the lack of candidates for domestication.

    This explanation struck me as nonsense, but gained wide academic acceptance. Do your readers know of evidence either for or against this proposition?

  25. #25 Barry Elledge
    April 8, 2009

    Further observations on domestication candidates: deer and wapiti tend to be self-domesticating to the point of becoming pests to any gardener (The same is true of turkeys). The reindeer-herding tribes of subarctic Eurasia seem to practice a kind of semi-domestication, and rope randomly selected animals as needed to pull their sleds. I suspect that American Indians could have domesticated at least some ungulate species had they wanted to do so. In fact, the reason we don’t have truly domesticated North American deer is because wildlife protection laws act as deterrents.

  26. #26 David Marjanović
    April 9, 2009

    Hmm. Does anyone know if the word saiga is originally Russian, or a loanword from some other language?

    It certainly looks like it’s from some Turkic language or other – compare taiga. It doesn’t look Russian to me.

  27. #27 Dartian
    April 9, 2009

    David:

    It certainly looks like it’s from some Turkic language or other – compare taiga. It doesn’t look Russian to me.

    Thanks for that; I thought it sounded a bit un-Russian but I wasn’t sure. It would support Allen’s suggestion that European languages are rubbish at inventing original names for different antelope species…

  28. #28 Sordes
    April 12, 2009

    Just about two weeks ago I had the opportunity to see some living elands in the Berlon zoo, really highly impressive animals! There are two old stuffed specimens of Taurotragus derbianus in the NHM of Berlin, and they are even much bigger and bulkier, about the size of a big bull (but I have to add this I read that this animals were prepared in a way which makes them looking more dangerous and bigger than they actually were).
    BTW, in german those animals are called “Elenantilope” what means “elen-antelope”. The word “elen” is an old word for moose, which is cald “Elch” in german. Sometimes the “Elch” was in earlier time also called “Elentier”. The similarity between the german “Elch” and the english “elk” causes often confusion when people which are not aware of the difference write about mooses instead of deers.
    I also once read that elands can crossbread with domestic cattle. Has anbody further information about this?

  29. #29 Dartian
    April 14, 2009

    Sordes:

    I also once read that elands can crossbread with domestic cattle. Has anbody further information about this?

    Both sporadic and systematic attempts have been made to cross eland with common cattle (and sometimes also with banteng). But according to Treus & Lobanov (1971), there are no well-documented cases of viable offspring ever resulting from such attempts.

    Reference:

    Treus, V.D. & Lobanov, N.V. 1971. Acclimatisation and domestication of the eland at Askanya-Nova Zoo. International Zoo yearbook 11, 147-156.

  30. #30 Katie Brakora
    April 23, 2009

    Re: stripes and tufts on elands

    How many stripes – and how prominent they are – on elands appears to vary by subspecies, which roughly correspond to geography. The breakdown (supplemented with Kingdon 1997):

    - Cape elands (T. o. oryx; S and SW Africa) are more tawny colored and tend to out-grow their stripesa and males turn more gray with age.
    - Livingstone’s eland (T. o. livingstonii; central woodlands) is more brownish and tends to retain visible stripes even with age.
    - East African elands (T. o. pattersonianus), retain more of a russet or rufous tinge and stripes even in very senior males.

    Also, I doubt that the frontal tufts of elands are homologous with those seen in dik-diks (or duikers, for that matter). There isn’t widespread variation in the hair of this region throughout the bovid clade. The hair of the dik-diks and duikers is squarely positioned between the horns (or even just around them closely, such that erecting the crest of hairs can obscure the horns). With elands the tuft clearly in front of the horns, extending down the face.

    If sexual dimorphism in the trait makes a difference, the tuft is a secondary sexual characteristic in elands, but a non-sexual, early-developing trait in dik-diks and duikers.

    I generally prefer the terms ‘frontal tuft’ and ‘crest’ to distinguish these different kinds.

    Great post – always a fan of the antelopes!

  31. #31 BT
    March 4, 2010

    Eland does taste very nice. I ate eland spaghetti in Tanzania in 1987. Of course not by choice (as it was a wild one shot by rangers) but out of necessity, as we were stuck in Ruaha national park for 3 weeks and ran out of chickens to eat. It was estimated to be somewhere in the vicinity of a tonne. I felt guilty as hell eating it and would have settled for warthog.

  32. #32 Robert Kolk
    October 27, 2010

    Darren wrote:

    “The word ‘eland’ derives from the Dutch meaning elk”

    That is correct. But this animal is know to us dutch as “Elandantilope”, with “Eland” refering to the size this antilope being comparable to that of an elk. “Eland” is Afrikaans, a language very closely related to Dutch.

  33. #33 Nathan Hofstad
    February 25, 2011

    Believe me or not, I’ve actually petted and hand-fed an eland(a spike calf) before, just last year actually. This one was at a petting zoo that comes to our county fair every year, with maras, fallow deer, ostriches, ruffed lemurs, and other cool exotic animals in tow to pet/feed.
    This particular eland had a wonderfully sweet, herbal-type smell to it, as I recall. And as you might expect from the photos above, their coat feels pleasantly smooth and silky to the touch. I also discovered that they generate a lot of spittle when taking grain from your hands!

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