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What is a Wildebeest?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A wildebeest is an ungulate in the genus Connochaetes which can be found in Southern, Central, and Eastern Africa. The animals roam across the plain in groups of varying sizes to seek out food and water. Wildebeest also engage in massive annual migrations in search of water in herds which can include hundreds of animals and travel over 800 miles (1,288 kilometers). The large animals are an important part of the African landscape, and are frequently sighted by people on safari.

The name originates from two Dutch Afrikaans words, meaning “wild beast.” A wildebeest can also be known by the alternate name of gnu, a word which comes from the Khoikhoi language of Africa. “Gnu” is probably an onomatopoeia, because male wildebeest make a grunting noise which sounds suspiciously similar. Whatever you call it, a wildebeest can grow to an impressive size. Some males have weighed in at over 550 pounds (250 kilograms), with cows generally weighing slightly less. In ideal conditions, a wildebeest can live to be about 20.

The wildebeest is considered a bovid, because it has even toed feet. Furthermore, the body structure of the wildebeest classifies it as an antelope. Like other antelope, a wildebeest has long, spindly legs, powerful hindquarters which give it a characteristic bounding motion, and formidable horns. Both males and females have horns, which can be used in combination with sharp hooves in a serious fight.

In small groups, wildebeest are at risk from predators such as lions and wild dogs. They are also at risk due to encounters with humans, who hunt them for food as well as fencing off their habitat. However, a large group of wildebeest can turn the tables. Wildebeest stampedes are famous in Africa, and the animals can travel up to 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) for at least thirty minutes when they are fleeing predators. Animals caught in their way will be run down.

Wildebeest have short glossy coats in brown to gray, with stripes made from longer, darker hair. Some species have distinct features such as beards or fetlock hair. The animals mate in the spring, after the rainy season has ended and before migrations begin. In December, female wildebeest give birth to their calves. Like many other wild animals, a young wildebeest is usually capable of keeping up with the herd within days, although it will take several months to fully mature.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a wildebeest?

A wildebeest, also known as a gnu, is a large hoofed mammal belonging to the Bovidae family, which includes cattle, goats, and sheep. There are two species: the blue wildebeest, Connochaetes taurinus, and the black wildebeest, Connochaetes gnou. Native to the grasslands and plains of eastern and southern Africa, they are known for their annual migrations in search of fresh grazing grounds.

How can you distinguish between a blue and a black wildebeest?

The blue wildebeest has a silvery-blue sheen, with darker vertical stripes on the shoulders and sides, and is larger than the black wildebeest. It also has a beard that can be black or white. The black wildebeest, on the other hand, is characterized by its white tail and brown to black body, and both sexes have a conspicuous white mane. Their horns also differ in shape.

What is the significance of the wildebeest migration?

The wildebeest migration is one of the most spectacular wildlife events on the planet. It involves over 1.5 million wildebeest, along with hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles, moving cyclically through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. This migration ensures the survival of these species by following the seasonal rains for fresh pastures and water, and it plays a crucial role in the biodiversity of the region.

Are wildebeests endangered?

Currently, wildebeests are not classified as endangered. The blue wildebeest is listed as of 'Least Concern' by the IUCN Red List, while the black wildebeest is considered 'Near Threatened'. However, they face threats from habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and diseases. Conservation efforts are essential to maintain their populations and the ecological balance of their habitats.

What do wildebeests eat?

Wildebeests are primarily grazers, feeding on short grasses found in the savannas and open woodlands of Africa. Their diet consists mostly of grasses, and they have adapted to follow the growth of new grasses stimulated by the seasonal rains. During the dry season, they may also browse on shrubs and other plants if grass is scarce.

How do wildebeests benefit their ecosystem?

Wildebeests play a critical role in their ecosystem by influencing the distribution of plant species through grazing. Their migration patterns help to fertilize the soil with their dung and urine, which in turn supports the growth of new vegetation. They are also a key food source for predators like lions, hyenas, and crocodiles, thus maintaining the balance within the food web.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Read more
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