ZOO TALES: Fringe-Eared Oryx Zoo's Newest Species
At first glance, visitors to the North Carolina Zoo's Watani Grasslands Reserve might miss one of the park's newest arrivals -- the fringe-eared oryx (Oryx beisa callotis). The oversight is understandable because of the antelope's similarity to its close relative, the gemsbok, a species that has been exhibited at the zoo for more than 15 years.
The strikingly beautiful oryx belongs to the order Artiodactyla, even-toed hoofed mammals, and the family Bovidae, which includes cattle, sheep, goats and all other antelope. The oryx is one of three or four large antelope species of the genus Oryx, all of which typically have long, straight horns -- almost upright or swept back. These spear-like horns are one of the most distinctive features of the oryx and have even given it the nickname "spear antelope." Found on both sexes, the horns are virtually parallel and ridged on the lower half.
Oryxes are one of the larger members of the antelope family, with a thick, horse-like neck, short mane and a compact, muscular body. A defined pattern of black markings that contrast with the white face and fawn-colored body is prominent.
The oryx is a true desert-dweller. Under extreme arid conditions, the oryx can raise its body temperature to as much as 116 degrees with a normal flow of heat from the body without a loss of water. Many oryx species were originally found in all the arid regions of Africa, but today they roam the scrub country of northeastern Tanzania and southern Kenya in east-central Africa. One species found on the Arabian Peninsula near northeastern Africa became extinct in 1972 but in 1982 was reintroduced into the wild from captive stock. Presently, there are about 600 in captivity.
In the wild, they typically move seasonally in either small mixed groups or large herds of as many as 100 or more, searching for water and food. A female, or cow, generally leads the search for water and food, with the lead (alpha) male bringing up the rear.
Some writers have suggested that the legend of the unicorn originated with the oryx. Their argument is that, seen from the side and from a distance, the oryx looks somewhat like a horse with a single horn. But this argument seems unlikely since the oryx's horns tilt backward rather than forward, which is the case with the classic unicorn. Although it is conceivable that travelers in Africa and particularly the Arabia Peninsula could have derived this tale from the oryx, classical authors seem to distinguish clearly between oryxes and unicorns.
Oryxes are the only antelope born with horns, which are visible at birth as hair-covered bumps. The young mature at about 2 years old. They can breed at any time of the year, with females generally giving birth to just one calf. Like most hoofed animals, the young are able to walk and follow their mothers when they are little more than an hour old. After about four months, calves can feed on their own; although they typically stay with the parent herd, they no longer remain with their mothers after that time.
Like many animal species in Africa and throughout the world, their main predators include man. Tribesmen in the habitat region of the oryx hunt them for their meat and hides, and in many cultures, their horns are sought after as charms. Oryxes are also stalked as trophies by safari hunters. Although not listed as endangered today (they're considered threatened) the number of fringe-eared oryx is declining in the wild.
All of us can help save oryxes and other wild animals by becoming active in conservation organizations and by not buying products made from wild animal parts.
Also, we can contact our elected representatives and express our views on conservation of endangered species and wild habitats.
Zoo visitors can daily see three oryxes in the park's Watani Grasslands Reserve exhibit.
Tom Gillespie works for the public affairs office of the N.C. Zoo.
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