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Coke's Hartebeest

Coke's Hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus cokii), Serengeti, Tanzania

Geographic Range Edit

The hartebeest, Alcelaphus buselaphus, was originally found in grasslands throughout the African continent (Walker 1997). It ranged from Morroco to northeastern Tanzania and, south of the Congo, it ranged from southern Angola to South Africa. Its range has been drastically reduced, however, due to hunting by humans, habitat destruction and foraging competition with domestic cattle. Now the hartebeest is found only in parts of Botswana, Namibia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Habitat Edit

A. buselaphus inhabits the savannahs and grasslands of Africa. It is tolerant of high grasses and may be found in woodland or scrubs areas more than other alcelaphines (Nowak 1997; Schaller 1972; African Wildlife Foundation).

Physical Description Edit

The hartebeest is a large ungulate ranging from 1.5 m to 2.45 m in length. Its tail is 300 to 700 mm and shoulder height is 1.1 to 1.5 m. It is characterized by a steeply sloping back, long legs, large glands below the eyes, a tufted tail, and a long, narrow rostrum. The body hair is about 25mm long and is quite fine in texture. It has paler patches of hair on most of its rump and chest and on parts of its face. It has been suggested that the pale hair on the rump may be presented in attracting mates or to ward off aggressors. There are several subspecies which are distinguished from each other by coat color, which varies from pale brown to brownish gray, and by horn shape. All subspecies have 2 horns, in both sexes, that rise from a single pedicel and are 450 to 700mm in length. Sexual maturity may occur as early as 12 months, but members of this species do not reach their maximum weight until 4 years of age (Kingdon 1989). The hartebeest has a lifespan of 11 to 20 years (Walker 1997; African Wildlife Foundation).

Reproduction Edit

Breeding in A. buselaphus takes place in territories that are defended by single males, preferably in open areas on plateaus or ridges (African Wildlife Foundation). Territorial males sniff the female's genitalia. If she is estrous, the male follows her around with his ears depressed. He will occasionally position himself laterally to the female and attempt to block her way. Once the female stands still, she allows the male to mount her. Copulation is brief but may be repeated several times. Copulation is always interrupted if another male intrudes. The intruder is usually chased away (Kingdon 1989). Reproduction varies seasonally depending on the population or subspecies of Hartebeest involved. Nowak (1997) reports that there are birth peaks from October to November in South Africa, December to February in Ethiopia, and February to March in Nairobi National Park. Gestation is 214-242 days and usually a single calf is born. Females isolate themselves in scrub areas to give birth (Schaller 1972; African Wildlife Foundation). This is markedly different than the birthing habits of their close relative the wildebeest, which give birth in groups on the open plains. Female A. buselaphus then leave their young hidden in the scrub for a few weeks, coming back only to suckle. Young are weaned at four months (Kingdon 1989).

Behavior Edit

Hartebeests are social animals living in organized herds of up to 300 animals. They have been known to form aggregations of up to 10,000 animals. Within a herd, there four types of animals: territorial adult males, nonterritorial adult males, groups of young males, and groups of females and young. Females within a herd form groups of 5-12 animals with up to four generations of offspring in their group. They do not form secure groups with other adult females. It is thought that there are strong dominance relationships between females and that these groups define the social organization for the entire herd. Females have been observed to occasionally fight one another (Kingdon 1989). Male offspring may remain with their mother for up to three years, but usually leave their mothers at about 20 months to join groups of other young males. At 3 to 4 years old, males may begin to attempt to take over a territory and the females within it. Once a territory has been established, the male will defend it and does not usually leave. Males are aggressive and if challenged will fight. A series of head movements and stances, and depositing droppings on established dung piles, precedes any contact. If that does not suffice, males bend forward and leap with their horns lowered. Injuries and fatalities do occur but are quite rare. Females and young may move in and out of the territories freely, following the best grazing. Males lose their territory after 7 to 8 years.

Hartebeests are usually conspicuous and sedentary. They may have a sentinel to warn the herd of predators. Although appearing slightly awkward, they may reach speeds of 70 to 80 kph. Schaller notes that they are very alert and cautious in comparison to other plains ungulates. Hartebeests rely primarily on their vision to spot predators, and they snort to warn each other of approaching danger. They gallup away in single file, after they see one of the members of the herd bolt (Kingdon 1989). They have been observed tacking, that is making a sharp 90 degree turn after taking only 1-2 strides in a given direction (Caro 1994; Nowak 1997; Schaller 1972; African Wildlife Foundation). A. buselaphus does not migrate, although during extreme conditions, such as a drought, a population may significantly change location (Verlinden 1998).

Food Habits Edit

Hartebeests are grazers that feed almost entirely on grass (African Wildlife Foundation). Greater than 95% of their food in the wet season (October to May) is grass and grass never comprises any less than 80% of their diet (Schuette 1998). Schuette determined that A. buselaphus in Burkina Faso, West Africa eats primarily Andropogon grass during the rainy season. Between seasons their diet is primarily Culms grass. It eats a small percentage of Hyparrhenia (a grass) and legumes throughout the year.  Jasminium kerstingii is also part of its diet at the beginning of the rainy season. The hartebeest is exceptionally tolerant of poor-quality food. Schuette argues that the long rostrum in A. bucelaphus enhances mastication ability and allows it to crop grasses better than other bovids. Thus, when availibility of succulent grasses is limited, as in the dry season, the hartebeest is able to eat the tougher senescent grasses. It has been substantiated elsewhere that A. buselaphus is able to digest a higher percentage of its food than other bovids (Murray 1993).

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