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ScienceEducation-Green-80.pngScience Question of the Month

What better way to learn about a science topic than to talk with the scientists who study it every day? The Biodiversity Institute's Question of the Month creates a platform for students to interact with UW scientists in the life sciences (biology, ecology, botany, zoology, physiology, etc.) to examine questions students can't find answers to in their textbooks. 

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September: Question of the Month:

This month, Alex, a Student at Coppell Middle School In Coppell, Texas wrote to us about Wildebeest:

Hi, my name is Alex, I am writing this letter to you because I want to know all about the wildebeest, like do they smell bad or good perhaps. And another thing that I want to know how much wildebeests are in Africa and what African countries do they mostly live in and what about culture is it neat cool are not so interesting, my opinion is that they look like zebras and elks mixed.


The thing that I want to know most about is what do they eat, how fast is a run and how did they come up with the name because if I found a type of animal that no one has ever seen in their life I would know how to answer it. The second thing I wanted to know is what type of place today sleep when it rains and where it sleeps when it is not raining.


I also want to know what type of behavior your Tuesday have when they see humans or other the animals that hunt them for food. And how fast do the baby wildebeest are able to stand and how fast they will go I think about the same speed as an adult because I saw a clip about wildebeest and when a lion or cheetahs come they run at the same speed. I've been looking forward to you writing me back.

Dear Alex,

I really enjoyed getting your letter with questions about wildebeest. Thanks -- wildebeest are pretty cool animals, which is not something everyone appreciates. I’ll do my  best to answer your questions. 

First of all, YES, they do smell, sometimes quite badly. However, compared to hippos,  they smell like roses. Hippos spend their entire day swimming in swamps and basically pooping  on themselves. Hyenas are also pretty smelly. But, both hippos and hyenas are cool for their  own reasons, so I forgive them for being smelly. 

Wildebeest live in Eastern and Southern Africa, which includes the countries of Kenya,  Tanzania (where I work), Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. There are  actually two different species of wildebeest (Blue and Black). Black wildebeest live in South  Africa and have funny horns that point forward. Blue wildebeest live in Eastern and Southern  Africa – they are not actually blue. The name “wildebeest” originally came from the Dutch who  lived in South Africa in the 1800s. The word literally means “Wild Beast,” which you might have  guessed. The name is not very original or clever. In Swahili (the language that people speak in  Tanzania) they are called Nyumbu, which is a lot more fun to pronounce. Their scientific name  is Connochaetes taurius. In total there are about 2 million wildebeest in Africa. A majority of  them live in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania and the Masai Mara, in Southern Kenya. 

Wildebeest are close relatives of cattle, so they only eat grass. Because grass is pretty  hard to eat and digest (have you ever tried?), wildebeest use a special organ connected to their  stomach called the rumen which it full of bacteria that helps break the grass down. It’s kind of  amazing that they can migrate so far – up to 600 miles per year – on only a diet of grass. 

They don’t seem to mind the rain. If it rains at night, I think they just stay out in the  open (I’ve never seen them at night in the rain, so I’m not entirely sure). It’s warm where they  live, so they don’t have to worry about hypothermia. 

Adult wildebeest can run about 45 mph. Their calves are really amazing – they can walk in only 7 minutes after birth. Within 15-20 minutes, the calves can already run about 20 miles  an hour. Just to put that in perspective, it takes most humans over 1 year to stand up and walk (ask your parents how long it took for you to walk). If we lived like wildebeest, we would be  lion snacks. 

Their speed is important, particularly as calves, because it helps them avoid predators,  such as lions, hyenas and leopards. Cheetahs eat wildebeest calves – cheetahs are not quite big  enough to take down an adult wildebeest. When wildebeest see predators, their behavior is  pretty interesting: if the predators aren’t moving, they stay where they are and stare at the  predator. Sometimes they will even start advancing towards it to threaten it. If the predator is  actually chasing them, wildebeest will just turn and run as fast as they can in the opposite  direction. Once they get far enough away, they’ll usually stop and stare at the predator to make  sure they know where it is. 

Wildebeest are about the same size as elk and zebra, and they eat a lot of the same  things, so I guess they are somewhat similar. Genetically, they are more closely related to elk  than zebra. But they do have stripes like zebra. In my research, I look at their stripes to identify  individuals. Each individual has a unique set of stripes, kind of like finger print matching or  barcodes at the supermarket. Then I give them names, like Bob, Samantha and Alex (just  joking, I don’t have any animals named Alex). To identify them, I take photos then use some  special computer software to analyze each photo. I’m actually going to Tanzania in another  week to do some more research. 

Anyway, I hope this was helpful. If you have any other questions, just let me know. If  you’re interested in African mammals, I’d recommend finding a copy of the Behavior Guide to  African Mammals by Richard Estes in the library or online. It has lots of great info. Also, if you  haven’t already, I hope you’ll get a chance to see a wildebeest in the wild someday because  they are pretty interesting animals. 

Best wishes,
Tom Morrison