Tetrapod Zoology

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].

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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].

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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.

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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.

Comments

  1. #1 Jerzy
    April 8, 2009

    I see Dublin (like Natural History Museum in London) has a problem with bleaching of specimens.

  2. #2 Dartian
    April 8, 2009

    a photograph taken there in 2008 was the first ever taken of an Okapi in the wild.

    Really? That’s very surprising. I have a vague recollection of seeing footage of a wild okapi in some Japanese wildlife documentary from the early 1990ies or so (the filmmakers were making a chimpanzee documentary IIRC; the okapi footage was fortuitous). But I’m not entirely sure about this and my memory could be wrong about some crucial detail… Does this ring any bells to anyone else?

  3. #3 Hai~Ren
    April 8, 2009

    Since we’re now on giraffids, what’s the deal on the hypothesis that sivatheres might have survived into the Holocene? And besides the extant species, what other species were running around in the Late Pleistocene?

    Anyway, it is quite interesting to note that the giraffids were once far more widespread and diverse during the Miocene and Pliocene, and then there’s also the climacoceratids with their antler-like ossicones…

  4. #4 anon
    April 8, 2009

    [from Darren: sorry, delayed by spam-filter]

    “what’s the deal on the hypothesis that sivatheres might have survived into the Holocene?”

    Dunno the *entire* deal, but cryptozoology fans can look here for starters, and here for previous discussion at this blog.

    Looking at illustrations of this thing online, I’m seeing that the depictions of its neck length vary a lot (from bison-ish to giraffe-ish).

    Does anybody know whether we have firm evidence for the neck length or not, and what said (approximate, qualitative) neck length actually was?

  5. #5 Laelaps
    April 8, 2009

    I blogged about the first photo of a living okapi a little while ago.

  6. #6 Darren Naish
    April 8, 2009

    Thanks Brian, I’ve updated the text to take account of this.

  7. #7 Jerzy
    April 8, 2009

    I would be also interested in those late sivatheres! And late chalicotheres, too.

    Most okapis recently were photographed in Okapi Research Station in Epulu. It has apparently some enclosures set in native forest. So I guess pictures are first of okapi ‘in the wild’. But who knows – there might be some old pictures of wild okapis, although probably of low quality.

    About Egyptians – their art distorts/stylises very much. I would be unconvinced that ‘okapi’ and ‘jentinks duiker’ are not some other wild or domestic ungulate.

  8. #8 Dave Hone
    April 8, 2009

    Two things of possible interest.

    1. I understand that in the wild they are generally trapped in pits, so the scarring (or general damage) could have occured either on falling in or trying to get out of a trap.

    2. Little known factoid: The ‘direction’ of the fur on an okapi reverses just behind the shoulders. So you stroke them forwards from the head and neck to the shoulders and then backwards from the rump towards the shoulders.

  9. #9 Dartian
    April 8, 2009

    After a little googling, I think I now know what okapi footage I had in mind. The legendary filmmaker Alan Root (where on earth I got the ‘Japanese’ from, I have no idea) made a nature documentary series in 1996 called Heart of Africa. One episode was filmed in what was then Zaire, and it featured all kinds of rainforest animals*. I think there were okapis in it too, although it’s pretty certain that those would not have really been filmed in the wild but rather in a fenced-off naturalistic enclosure at a research station. But in that documentary was also an apparently authentic scene where a leopard was feeding from an okapi carcass (and was chased away by a troop of chimpanzees).

    * Including staged, but still pretty neat, footage of a water chevrotain Hyemoschus aquaticus swimming and diving.

  10. #10 johannes
    April 8, 2009

    There is a rather well-known bas relief from Persepolis that shows a group of Ethiopian tribute bearers – note that “Ethiopia” meant Nubia or Sudan rather than the ethiopian highlands to ancient Greeks or Persians – with a creature that, while not necessarily an Okapi, is without doubt a small giraffid: http://travel.webshots.com/photo/1475958689015862856CUwGPp

  11. #11 johannes
    April 8, 2009

    > where a leopard was feeding from an okapi carcass (and was
    > chased away by a troop of chimpanzees)

    Dartian,

    was this an act of cleptoparasitism, or did the chimps just chase the leopard away and ignored the carcass?

  12. #12 Metalraptor
    April 8, 2009

    My question is how the heck did that one guy think the okapi was a modern-day relative of Hipparion? Didn’t he notice the horns, and the even-toed hooves? I mean if he just looked at the skin that might give him reason for his mistake, but still.

    I find the other ideas of later surviving giraffids that don’t exactly conform to the modern species mould to be quite interesting. For example, what is the possibility that the small giraffids that seem to pop up every now and again in ancient art are “savannah okapis” for lack of a better term, that went extinct due to the advent of civilization, but hung around long enough to be recorded.

  13. #13 Dartian
    April 8, 2009

    Johannes:

    was this an act of cleptoparasitism, or did the chimps just chase the leopard away and ignored the carcass?

    If I remember correctly, the narrator said that after chasing away the leopard, the chimps “stole” the carcass – but this was never actually shown on screen.

  14. #14 Hai~Ren
    April 8, 2009

    Dartian: I vaguely remember that documentary as well, precisely for that scene where the chimpanzees chased the leopard away, which included them drumming on buttress roots. And yes, they supposedly drove the leopard away in order to gain access to the carcass. Didn’t recall that the carcass was that of an okapi though.

  15. #15 seabold
    April 8, 2009

    The pic of the supposed okapi is really cool. Just out of curiousity, I remember reading years ago about a supposed carving or mural or something…I think it was egyptian…that shows the traditional parade of gift bearers from conquered lands. And the writer mentions that one of the figures is leading a small elephant on a leash. Supposedly the animal is shown as being very hairy and the theory was that it was either a young asian elephant or possibly a mammoth calf. Has anyone else ever heard of this?

  16. #16 Darren Naish
    April 8, 2009

    Seabold: you remember correctly, there is an alleged Egyptian ‘dwarf mammoth’. We’ve mentioned it here before in fact – please see this comment or, better yet, the brief article referenced therein. I have a digital version of the image concerned, but not a pdf of the paper…

    Rosen, B. 1994. Mammoths in ancient Egypt? Nature 369, 364.

  17. #17 JuliaM
    April 8, 2009

    “2. Little known factoid: The ‘direction’ of the fur on an okapi reverses just behind the shoulders. So you stroke them forwards from the head and neck to the shoulders and then backwards from the rump towards the shoulders.”

    I remember reading (a long time ago, in an old wildlife book) that the colour would actually transfer to your hands if you stroked an okapi. That can’t be true, can it?

  18. #18 Mark Lees
    April 8, 2009

    The stuffed specimen may be faded and scarred, but it well shows the size of the animal.

    I have watched them at the zoo (Bristol Zoo) several times over the years, and find them fascinating. They manage to be beautiful and curious at the same time.

    I recall reading a magazine article on the okapi as a kid, and while I’m not 100% sure, I think there was a black & white photo in that of a wild okapi. The magazine was ‘Animals’, the predecessor to BBC Wildlife in the 1960s and early 70s (I was a bit too young to read it when it was first published, but the older sister of a friend of mine gave me a whole load of back issues of the magazine in the mid 1970s).

  19. #19 Jerzy
    April 8, 2009

    I remember that film. All wonderful creatures, like otter genet! They were mostly staged, but this is still the only footage of many African rainforest specialities.

    Chimp-leopard-okapi scene had very strange camera angles, perhaps impossible to obtain with filming wild animals. For me (sorry, it’s my hobby to search for this things) it seems that it was mix of footages of leopard, possibly tame, feeding on meat of unknown animal (maybe domestic goat) with a bit of okapi skin put in forefront, and separately filmed footage of chimps going mad.

    Anyway, anybody knows how to get this film?

  20. #20 David Marjanović
    April 8, 2009

    with a creature that, while not necessarily an Okapi, is without doubt a small giraffid:

    A giraffid? With these duiker-like horns?

  21. #21 Jerzy
    April 8, 2009

    Supposed okapi on Persepolis relief has well developed mane. It’s horns are pointed and appear to have a line demarcating horn-core and head.

    I think it is young roan antelope Hippotragus equinus! Roans are native to southern Sudan and Ethiopia. And ancient Egyptians are known to keep herds of tame antelope together with goats and cattle. (although I don’t know if roan). This would also explain a bridle.

    Doesn’t it fit better?
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/8834404@N02/2477727145/
    http://www.ultimateungulate.com/Images/Hippotragus_equinus/H_equinus2.html

    Another possibility is juvenile scimitar-horned oryx or addax. But, like okapi, they have no mane.

    Transport of live okapi, besides the unlikeliness that Ethiopians got to Congo rainforests and brought nothing besides live okapi, faces problems with diet. Okapi is a browser and would hardly survive on hay.

  22. #22 Nathan Myers
    April 8, 2009

    William White demurs on dwarf mammoths in Egypt (Nature 370, 604):

    http://www.cefe.cnrs.fr/coev/pdf/fk/Kjellberg1994.pdf

  23. #23 Bob Michaels
    April 8, 2009

    I am always on the lookout for subspecies, The okapi observed in the Virunga National park may be such a case, if some DNA can be subjected to molecular analysis.

  24. #24 Metalraptor
    April 8, 2009

    “Seabold: you remember correctly, there is an alleged Egyptian ‘dwarf mammoth’. We’ve mentioned it here before in fact – please see this comment or, better yet, the brief article referenced therein. I have a digital version of the image concerned, but not a pdf of the paper…

    Rosen, B. 1994. Mammoths in ancient Egypt? Nature 369, 364.”

    Darren, I feel the last thing we need to do is encourage the folks that made 10,000 B.C. But then again, the egyptians did have their “travelling” period. Who knows what they might have seen. Though based on geography, I might assume that it is a dwarf elephant instead.

  25. #25 Dave Hone
    April 8, 2009

    To JuliaM: no the colour won’t transfer to your hands but the oil and grease of the fur will and that’s quite chestnut coloured, so if you do it enough your hands will turn a kind of rich brown. And while we are on the subject, if you do it to a tapir your hands will very rapidly go black and the stuff is a nightmare to get off.

  26. #26 Graham Peter King
    April 9, 2009

    Dave Hone wrote

    To JuliaM: no the colour won’t transfer to your hands but the oil and grease of the fur will and that’s quite chestnut coloured, so if you do it enough your hands will turn a kind of rich brown. And while we are on the subject, if you do it to a tapir your hands will very rapidly go black and the stuff is a nightmare to get off.

    Fascinating! I immediately wonder if (as well as damp-proofing the coat of okapi and tapir) this feature serves in any other way – e.g. to scentmark trails habitually used; to aid territoriality by oily distinctiveness imparted to trees (deliberately?) rubbed against; or as deterrent/repellent/toxin to insect pests, leeches, parasites?
    How common is this oily-deposit-leaving-coat trait among species, and have any such ‘applications’ ( ;-D ) been suggested/documented/studied?
    Just wondering.. and, ‘cos wondering, asking!

  27. #27 Graham Peter King
    April 9, 2009

    Darren, I should also have said I just caught up on your megamammals to date and loved them. So many creatures to know…

    Museums are wonderful places. I visit them repeatedly with great pleasure; and in my dreams, too.

    I wonder also whether the unusual (?) change in hair direction on okapi relates to lifestyle (as it does with sloth).. do okapi often move backwards through vegetation sometimes? e.g. into/out of dense thickets to browse? (Such oddities of form often prompt me to ask ‘but…why?’ in case there is something interesting to learn re function!)

    I wonder too whether – with climate change – there will be natural or staged extension of ranges of some megamammals: for opportune (semi)domesticated husbandry as some may be found suited to altered climate/conditions, and/or for conservation of threatened species?

  28. #28 Dartian
    April 9, 2009

    Jerzy:

    anybody knows how to get this film?

    I think National Geographic had the entire Heart of Africa miniseries for sale (in VHS format) a long time ago. But you’ll need some luck to find a copy today.

    Anyway, I’ve found at least one snippet from that documentary online: it shows footage of the water chevrotain I mentioned earlier, and it can be found at the ARKive site.

    (Doesn’t the water chevrotain remind you a bit of Carl Buell’s reconstruction of Indohyus, by the way?)

  29. #29 gordon rugg
    April 9, 2009

    Re Egyptian paintings: Artistic conventions in Ancient Egypt include some regularities that can lead to misunderstandings (e.g. symbolism about human skin colour). The Ancient Egyptians used what’s known as “social perspective” when depicting humans; someone’s size in an image related to how important they were, as opposed to the geometric perspective that we’re used to nowadays.On the whole, the relative sizes of animals and humans in Egyptian paintings are about right by modern conventions, since relative social status wasn’t an issue in dealing with animals, so social perspective didn’t kick in. However, if the Egyptians were dealing with an unusual animal, then they wouldn’t have necessarily attempted photorealism in the image. The small elephant might have been deliberately depicted small to make a symbolic point, or accidentally depicted small, because the artist simply hadn’t seen the animal in question, and had over-done the smallness based on a verbal description. It would be unwise to read too much into the animal’s size in the image; if there are any Egyptologists who could contribute some more specialised input, I’d be interested to see their take on this.

  30. #30 johannes
    April 9, 2009

    > A giraffid? With these duiker-like horns?

    David,

    the size isn’t right for a duiker – all the other animals on those reliefs (horses, bactrian camels, sheep, lion cups) are depicted to scale – nor are the convex, almost ram-like profile, the mane, and the position of the eyes far forward on the skull.

    Jerzy,

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/8834404@N02/2477727145/ clearly shows a concave, rather than a convex, profile, and horns directly positioned above the eyes, this doesn’t fit with the animal on the Persepolis relief. Also, juvenile traits are notably absent on the Persepolis animal. And trying to lead *Hippotragus* around on a leash will probably end with a Darwin Award…

  31. #31 Dartian
    April 9, 2009

    Darren:

    Of course, everyone (yeah, ‘everyone’) knows the same factoid about the Okapi: that it was discovered by Harry Johnston in 1900

    In Sweden they used to prefer another version: that the real discoverer of the okapi was the Swedish lieutenant Karl Eriksson, and that Johnston just took the credit…

  32. #32 Dave Hone
    April 9, 2009

    Graham Peter King: I can;t tell you how widespread these things are – I am afraid mine is very colloquial knowledge from having worked with these animals in a zoo. As for the scent marking etc. it is possible, but both animals are pretty solitary and shy and both are vulnerable to leopards (in very different places) and this might be a bad idea. They could be tracked by a cat with a good sense of smell. Wandering males will still pick up females in heat, but leaving a constant trail could make them easy targets I suspect.

  33. #33 JuliaM
    April 10, 2009

    “To JuliaM: no the colour won’t transfer to your hands but the oil and grease of the fur will and that’s quite chestnut coloured, so if you do it enough your hands will turn a kind of rich brown. And while we are on the subject, if you do it to a tapir your hands will very rapidly go black and the stuff is a nightmare to get off.”

    Ah, thanks. I did wonder if it was one of those odd myths that creeps in to those kind of old books. It seemed so outlandish.

  34. #34 Greg Laden
    April 10, 2009

    I have been in touch with both other field workers in Zaire/Congo (where I’ve worked) and with the French who made the 2008 claim, and clearly, the French claim was overstated. There are photographs of wild okapi in the field other than those. They are just not widely circulated.

  35. #35 Jerzy
    April 12, 2009

    On the topic of ‘Persepolis okapi’.
    Thanks for pointing details. The relief even better matches young beisa oryx, which has short mane, concave forehead and horns are indeed, positioned above ears. And Ancient Egyptians domesticated closely related scimitar-horned oryx.

    http://www.ultimateungulate.com/Artiodactyla/Oryx_beisa.html

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