Creature Feature: Okapi

If you ever find yourself in the Congo and see an animal that looks like a mix between a giraffe and a zebra- don’t worry, you don’t need your vision checked- that’s an okapi! 

A majestic okapi standing watch. [Source]

This stunning creature can be found in the rainforests of central Africa, and is one of two living members of the Giraffidae family [1]. Given their relation, okapi share several physical characteristics with giraffes, including a long neck and ossicones on their heads (the horn-like protrusions) [2]. Despite some similarities, giraffes have become a much more prevalent guest at zoos across the country. 

The unique pattern seen on the rear of the okapi functions as camouflage. In the dense rainforest, the combination of brown and white stripes helps to mimic the shadows of branches [3]. This feature is also what makes them instantly recognizable in zoos across the world. (They can be seen in the following zoos, just to name a few: Houston, San Diego, Dallas, Bronx, Cincinnati, and Miami!) 

The okapi is currently listed as “endangered” on the IUCN List of Endangered Species [4]. This is due to the regular threat to their natural habitat in the Congo and global farming tactics that impact the health of rainforests across the southern hemisphere. It is believed there are only a few thousand of them remaining in the wild. 

In addition to being endangered, okapi are also a solitary and elusive species with large home ranges, making it logistically challenging to study them [5]. Despite living independently, they are genetically polyamorous, meaning that they mate with a variety of partners. The females are typically larger than the males, reaching up to 300 kg. They have a rather long gestation period of around 415 days, and reach sexual maturity at 20 months old. Baby okapis, called calves, are born weighing about 15-30 kg [6]. 

Okapis, similarly to giraffes, feed on the leaves of young trees. They are considered to be folivorous, meaning that they feed specifically on the leaves of plants. Their long necks allow them to reach higher than other animals in their environment and select their preferred plant using their tongues [7]. 

However, being a forager who relies on their tongue for feeding can come at the cost of the development of stereotypies. A stereotypy is a behavior that is repetitive and often abnormal. In this case, many ungulates (hoofed mammals) who eat by using their tongue to grip food perform a behavior known as tongue rolling, which is the abnormal curling of the tongue in a circular motion. It has been shown that captive okapis perform tongue rolling, along with giraffes [8]. Zoos have thus increased the nutritional enrichment available for giraffes and okapis, by providing high trees to feed on, and long pieces of hay to mimic their natural feeding habits. 

Tongue rolling in an okapi. [Source]

Overall, okapis are an extremely unique mammal found in sections of rainforests in central Africa, so be sure to look for them next time you are visiting the zoo!


Isabelle McDonald-Gilmartin is a PhD student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group. She studies welfare behavior in dairy cattle. She loves painting, reading and playing with her dog.


References

[1] Sever, Z. (2020). Searching for the okapi ( Okapia johnstoni ) in Semuliki National Park, Uganda. African Journal of Ecology, 59(1), 286–292. https://doi.org/10.1111/aje.12796

[2] Kümpel, N. F., Grange, S., & Fennessy, J. (2015). Giraffe and okapi: Africa’s forgotten megafauna. African Journal of Ecology, 53(2), 132–134. https://doi.org/10.1111/aje.12220

[3] https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/okapi#:~:text=Okapis%20are%20very%20shy.,sounds%20coming%20from%20any%20direction.

[4] The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (2015). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/15188/51140517

[5] Stanton, D. W. G., Hart, J., Kümpel, N. F., Vosper, A., Nixon, S., Bruford, M. W., Ewen, J. G., & Wang, J. (2015). Enhancing knowledge of an endangered and elusive species, the okapi, using non‐invasive genetic techniques. Journal of Zoology, 295(4), 233–242. https://doi.org/10.1111/jzo.12205

[6] Bertelsen, M. F. (2015). Giraffidae. Fowler’s Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine, Volume 8, 602–610. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-1-4557-7397-8.00061-x

[7] Nardelli, F. (2013).The mega-folivorous mammals of the Rainforest: feeding ecology in nature and in a controlled environment: A contribution to their conservation. International Zoo News, 60(5), 323-339

[8] Bashaw, M. J., Tarou, L. R., Maki, T. S., & Maple, T. L. (2001). A survey assessment of variables related to stereotypy in captive giraffe and okapi. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 73(3), 235–247. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0168-1591(01)00137-x

[Edited by Alexandra Dwulit]

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