Best known as a grunting backdrop on every African animal documentary ever, or failing that, trampling over Mufasa, the blue wildebeest has a habit of being overshadowed. But even without the whole “spectacular migration” part, it’s much more than that.
This might reflect the general hand-wavery that goes on, but like “gnu” and “wildebeest”, the name “blue wildebeest” is also used interchangeably.
It’s either a catch-all to separate it from the larger black wildebeest
– the other species in its genus Connochaetes – or for a specific subspecies found south of the Zambezi River, Connochaetes taurus taurus, or “brindled gnu”. Apart from their regional romping grounds there isn’t much difference, but I’ll let you know if I’m specifying the subspecies.
With that out of the way, let’s see what makes the blue wildebeest stand out from the crowd.
First off, this disproportionate animal can run faster than a racehorse.
Clocking up to 80kmh (50mph), the blue wildebeest beats the equine world record by a whole 11kmh (7mph), which can make all the difference when a predator is in hot pursuit. It’s born to run, as it happens, with a newborn calf able to stand within 5 minutes, and able to run within the hour.
Within a week it can keep up with the rest of the herd, which is handy since blue wildebeest will migrate hundreds of kilometres in search of water and grazing. Perhaps the most famous journey is that of the Serengeti-Mara in May-June, with more than 1 million animals making a 2,000 km (1,242 mile) round-trip every year.
How do they know where to go? It seems the blue wildebeest looks to the sky for inspiration.
Rainstorms bring out the best grass, so a herd will follow the clouds to find better pasture. According to Lee and Martha Talbot’s research, blue wildebeest even managed to track storms when downwind of them, so the animals weren’t only using their sense of smell. But it’s not exactly fool-proof.
One herd, after travelling some 90km (55 miles) after a storm, discovered the rain had fallen on the nearby hills rather than the grassland, and so made the trek all the way back again. It would have sucked being the leaders of that particular herd. Well, perhaps not as much as the ones in the Botswana Kalahari or South Africa’s Kruger National Park in the 1980s, but I’ll come back to those later. Breeding season also seems to be nudged along by the weather.
At the close of the rains, when the grasses are lush and the night is bright, something comes over them.
Usually at the start of a full moon, the bulls begin their rut.
For the next three weeks they low, grunt and bellow at each other – even more than usual – as well as serenade the cows, and a 2018 study by Calabrese et al. suggests their manly vocals help synchronise the females’ horniness. (The other kind.)
In any case, after a free-for-all on both sides, there’s a wave of births about 8 and a half months later, and since this coincides with the appearance of Spica, a bright star in the constellation Virgo, it’s known as the “Wildebeest Star”, or iNqonqoli, to the Zulu.
Since a cow gives birth alone, there is a chance for her to bond with her baby before it disappears among the countless others born at the same time. Imprinting is almost entirely through scent, and blue wildebeest have glands around their eyes and between their toes. This lets them both smear their own scent to mark territory or besties, and effortlessly leave a trail while walking. It purportedly smells like tar, so this would likely grab your attention even if their relentless grunting didn’t.
But the blue wildebeest’s noises are far from mindless.
The low and unimpressed grunts are generally to show alertness, or that everything’s fine with the other wildebeest grazing around it. Talbot and Talbot noticed that males snort when alarmed or challenging a rival, while females have a sharp warning snort for their calves. Both sexes enjoy a good grunt or low, and when abandoned or separated, a calf will bleat for its mother.
It often has good reason to, because a baby-boom is a jackpot for the local predators.
Lions, spotted hyenas and cheetahs all have the blue wildebeest on their menu. Strangely enough, smaller herds see fewer offspring snatched, maybe because fewer members mean more vigilance. Impossibly large herds, on the other hand, probably just assume someone else is watching.
Still, Mum isn’t about to let something carry off her calf. A charge, a well-placed kick or horn toss can repel the odd cheetah or hyena. Unfortunately the blue wildebeest isn’t quite so resilient against bot-fly larvae or catarrhal fever, and since this can also spread to cattle and wipe out entire herds, its name can be mud to many a farmer.
A lack of fresh water can also be a kicker, as the aforementioned Kruger National Park and Botswana herds discovered.
The two groups headed towards calamity when they found their usual watering spots blocked by veterinary fences. Both cases ended with an enormous die-off, one affecting thousands at Lake Xau in the Kalahari Desert, and Kruger Park’s reducing the population by a whopping 87% .
But before things get too bleak, the blue wildebeest has enjoyed some love and respect in its time.
In the stories of South African witch doctor Credo Mutwa, it’s part of a grandparent’s blessing:
May you grow, child of my child. May you grow as tall as the giraffes of the wilderness, as mighty as the buffalos of the plains, and as wise as the wildebeests of the bush.
It also enjoys the protection of another species. According to Credo, two great Zulu families, the Cele and Duban, took the zebra as their totem animal, and since it was often seen side by side with wildebeest, they extended their protection to it as well.
A more literal mix with other animals occurred in the story of its creation. From the leftovers of a warthog head, zebra stripes, buffalo neck and lion’s mane, the blue wildebeest was born, or alternatively, from the horns, head, beard and body of a cow, mule, goat and horse, respectively. And it seemed happy with its lot to boot.
So my question is: how did we ever let such a weird, abundant and fascinating animal sneak past in the background?
Latin: Connochaetes taurinus (taurinus)
What? Beefy African antelope with a mane, horns and beard and stripes over its neck and back.
Where? Grasslands and savanna of southern Africa, from Kenya to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The blue subspecies is found south of the Zambezi River in Zambia, parts of Angola, Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique.
How big? 2.4 metres / 8 feet long and 1.4-1.5 metres / 4.5-4.9 feet at the shoulder.
Endangered? Considered Least Concern, due to its numbers and wide range.
Probable motto: Well, who wouldn’t walk hundreds of kilometres for a good meal?
They sound awesome. Do they need my help at all?
It’s not exactly rare, but the blue wildebeest can feel the bite of habitat loss and barricades during migration. There are no current campaigns, but the African Wildlife Foundation tries to work with locals and government to make sure it’s not boxed in – or out – of its natural home and water sources.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Astronomical Society of Southern Africa. No date. “African ethnoastronomy“.
“Blue wildebeest“. No date. National Geographic.
Bradford, Alina. 2017. “Facts about gnus (wildebeests)“. Live Science.
Calabrese, Justin M. et al. 2018. “Male rutting calls synchronize reproduction in Serengeti wildebeest“, Scientific Reports 8, Article number: 10202 (2018).
Estes, Richard. No date. “Gnu“. Britannica.com.
Furstenberg, Deon. 2013. “Focus on the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)“. S A Hunter 03074:22-25.
Geraci, Greg. No date. “Connochaetes taurinus – blue wildebeest“. Animal Diversity Web.
Guiness World Records. No date. “Fastest speed for a racehorse“.
IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group. 2016. “Connochaetes taurinus . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2016: e.T5229A50185086.
Möller, Lucie A. 2017. “Of the same breath:indigenous animal and place names“. Sun Press.
Skinner, John D., and Chimimba, Christian T. 2005. “The mammals of the southern African subregion“. Cambridge University Press.
Tambling, C. et al. 2016. “A conservation assessment of Connochaetes taurinus taurinus“. In Child M.F. et al., editors. The Red List of Mammals of South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho. South African National Biodiversity Institute and Endangered Wildlife Trust, South Africa.
“Wildebeest“. No date. African Wildlife Foundation.
Wildlife Campus. No date. “Mammals part #2 – African folklore“.
Featured image credit: “Blue wildebeest running on dusty plains”, © Jacoba Susanna Maria Swanepoel .