Welcome to day 3 of Stuffed Megamammal Week. So far (day 1, day 2) we’ve looked at bovids. Now for something completely different. Yes, it’s that wonderful, charismatic, beautiful African mammal, the Okapi Okapia johnstoni. Again, this specimen is on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, and sorry the photos aren’t that great: the specimen is faded relative to the real thing, and this photo has been further muted by my atrocious camera skills [Gareth Dyke in background].
Okapis are very neat beasts, well known for their velvety, dark brown to purplish, striped coat. Their fur is oily with good water-repellent qualities. Okapis are mostly restricted to the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, though they formerly occurred in Uganda as well, and rock art in northern Africa (specifically Algeria) suggests that they were known to people right up in the north of the continent. In 2006 they were rediscovered in Virunga National Park, and a photograph taken there in 2008 was, allegedly, the first ever taken of an Okapi in the wild (though there is some scepticism about this claim – see the comments at Brian’s article here). They are threatened, and poaching and habitat destruction is causing them to decline. It has been hypothesised that human persecution and competition with forest-dwelling bovids has resulted in a historical contraction of range (Kingdon 1997). In addition to fruits, ferns, fungi, and shade-loving plants, they also eat charcoal. They use infrasound (Lyndaker et al. 1993) [thanks to Emma-Louise Nicholls for images below].
Of course, everyone (yeah, ‘everyone’) knows the same factoid about the Okapi: that it was discovered by Harry Johnston in 1900 following his pursuit of the semi-mythical ‘Atti’, a donkey-like Congolese animal mentioned in passing by Henry Stanley in 1888. Johnston initially obtained two bandoliers that he sent to Philip L. Sclater in London, and, in 1901, Sclater named the new species Equus johnstoni for these specimens. Sclater, Johnston, Stanley and others all thought that the animal – by now known as the Okapi after the Lese term o’api – was an equid; in fact, Johnston thought it was a modern example of the fossil equid Hipparion. Early in 1901, Johnston obtained a complete skin and two skulls, and a few features of the teeth and feet now revealed that this was a giraffid, not a horse. E. Ray Lankester removed the species from Equus and now coined Okapia (Lankester 1901): an inappropriate name, perhaps, as Okapi was the name used by one small ethnic group, and was less widely used than some of its alternatives. Anyway, the remarkable discovery of a large living mammal caused a huge sensation, and the rest is history.
In fact, what I’ve just said merely scratches the surface, and there’s a ton of early Okapi stuff that is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Several people claimed to ‘discover’ the Okapi at about the same time as, and even earlier than, Johnston; two Okapi species were named in addition to O. johnstoni; and there are at least two faked ‘discoveries’ dating to the 1880s and 1890s. None of this stuff is widely known, nor included in any of the standard references on African mammals, so I’ll write it up for Tet Zoo some time. Don’t hold your breath though.
One more thing: why all the scars? Skins collected in the field sometimes sustain horrendous damage due to difficult conditions (the infamous Tsavo lions at the Field Museum are a good example). Is that what happened here? I don’t know.
Previous Tet Zoo musings on Okapi can be found here.
Refs – –
Kingdon, J. 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press, San Diego.
Lankester, E. R. 1901. On Okapia johnstoni. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1901, 279-281.
Lyndaker, L. S., Bennett, C. L., Fried, J. J. & Pritchard, J. K. 1993. Functional analysis of infrasound in the okapi (Okapia johnstoni): mother-infant communication. American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums Annual Conference Proceedings 1993, 299-305.