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Reasons for really liking wildebeest

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Brindled wildebeest, photographed at Kruger National Park by Chris Eason. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

There are lots of reasons for liking wildebeest… or gnus. For me, the main one comes from the fact that they are insanely flamboyant in appearance. Check out all the stuff we have going on in the best known and most widespread of the two (read on) species, the Brindled or Blue wildebeest Connochaetes taurinus: both the dorsal mane and shaggy tail are black are hence well demarcated from the rest of the body, the muzzle is also black, the legs are sometimes brown and thus also differentiated from the grey body, vertical streaks on the neck and body form obvious pseudo-stripes, and there’s a beard and throat mane as well (formed of black, white or cream hairs, depending on the population). Slender-tipped horns curve outwards and upwards. [Adjacent photo by Chris Eason.]

As for the other species – the White-tailed or Black wildebeest (or gnu) C. gnou – why, it’s even more flamboyant. The long, luxuriant tail is brilliant white, the dorsal mane is erect, with white hairs tipped with black, and there’s a black beard, muzzle crest and chest tuft. Slender, strongly curved horns sweep upwards and forwards, and highly active preorbital glands discharge liquid secretion into the muzzle tuft and beard (Kingdon 1997). Pedal, interdigital glands secrete scent as well (in both species), and Black wildebeest also increase their pungency during the rutting season by rolling in their own urine and dung. Incidentally, hybrids between the two kinds are known (von Richter 1974), though they only seem to have occurred in semi-captive settings. They’re fertile.

Some of the flamboyant features of the front end of the Black wildebeest: the slender, upswept horns, mane, muzzle tuft, beard and chest tuft are all visible here. Image by Vassil, in public domain.

Rutting male wildebeest show off their flamboyant bodies by posing, head-shaking and cavorting. In fact, a repertoire of about 30 actions are available when one wildebeest challenges another; one of the two makes mock-grazing actions, may rub his neck on the opponent’s rump, present his body in profile, perform the head-up, so-called ‘alarm display’, or drop down onto his ‘knees’ (wrists, of course) to do more mock-grazing or initiate a fight (Spinage 1986). They also make noisy exclamations. During the rutt, wildebeest defend marked-out territorial patches, the aim being to get oestrous females to stay in their company.

‘Male-mimic’ females – why?

Territorial and sexual battles are a normal part of wildebeest social life during the rutting season. Image by Yathin S Krishnappa, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

However, lest we think that all the remarkable features of wildebeest are display ornaments specifically designed by evolution to lure in female attention, they’re present in females too, so – what gives? Because females need to defend themselves and their calves from the males whose territories they have to pass through, from predators, and from competing females, one popular suggestion for these antelopes is that females are ‘male mimics’ that require all that ornament and armament for self-defence, both from other wildebeest and from predators (Stankovich & Caro 2009). If this is true, some aspects of female wildebeest appearance are driven more by the pressures of natural selection than sexual selection. [Adjacent image by Yathin S Krishnappa.]

But while this might explain body size and horn form, why do females have the showy manes, tassels and flowing tails and so on? This hasn’t really been explained – after all, ornaments of this sort are lacking in the females of some other bovid species where the males have them. Maybe they persist through natural selection because they’re crucial whatever sex you are, or maybe they’re the product of genetic correlation between the sexes. Or maybe there’s something really interesting going on. Estes (2000) has proposed the so-called andromimicry hypothesis, suggesting that females resemble males such that their maturing sons are disguised within the herd, thus avoiding the aggressive, territorial attention of sexually mature males, and thus not being driven out of the herd and subjected to the high rates of mortality that would result. It’s certainly an intriguing hypothesis.

Flexed faces and the wildebeest of the past

Anatomical weirdness of the Brindled wildebeest: a down-flexed face, and all those black vertical folds that you haven't paid attention to before. Image by Dilly Lama, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Wildebeest are anatomically interesting for other reasons. Despite looking like cattle, they’re antelopes, and specifically alcelaphines. That is, they’re members of the same long-snouted bovid group as the Hirola Beatragus hunteri, Bontebok Damaliscus dorcas, Topi D. lunatus and the hartebeests (Alcelaphus). But whereas other alcelaphines have a fairly slender neck and a head usually held well above the level of the shoulders, wildebeest have a bull-necked, low-slung appearance. Does this relate specifically to any aspect of their skeletal anatomy? I don’t think that there any studies that might shed light on this, though the tall shoulders have been linked to the evolution of an efficient (but not especially fast) cantering gait. [Adjacent image by Dilly Lama.]

Brindled wildebeest of Namibia: note the black facial hair and beard... and is that dorsal mane erect, or just blowing in the wind? Image by Pcb21, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Clearly, wildebeest are strongly specialised for grazing on short, ground-hugging grasses. They actually struggle to feel on tall grasses and Kingdon (1997) suggested that the widespread presence of such in otherwise suitable habitat across equatorial Africa explains their absence in these regions. By the way, while we typically think of Brindled wildebeest as migratory, this is not true in places where climate, soil fertility and so on promotes the perpetual, reliable presence of a year-round supply of healthy, short grasses. So wildebeest are sedentary in Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and a few other places.

Black wildebeest again. Check out the luxuriant, white tail. Image by Vassil, in public domain.

Brindled wildebeest were more widespread in the recent past than they are today. We know that they were present in far northern Africa during the Late Pleistocene (Gentry 1978) and perhaps during part of the Holocene, but then this was true of most of the megafauna now generally restricted to sub-Saharan regions. An extinct Pleistocene wildebeest, C. antiquus, has been said to be similar to the Black wildebeest in the form of its horn bases, but the more distal parts of the horns are intermediate between those of Black and Brindled wildebeest (von Richter 1974). Until recently, Black wildebeest were famously restricted to managed game reserves and ranches in Orange Free State and the Transvaal where they were essentially saved from extinction by farmers. Hunting and habitat loss made them extinct in the wild by about 1900. They’ve now been reintroduced throughout South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, and also introduced into Kenya and Namibia. Fossils show that the Black wildebeest once occurred as far south as Hermanus in the southern Cape (von Richter 1974).

The wildebeest muzzle and mouth are broad and squared-off. Large, hair-lined flaps cover the nostrils and the long axis of the face is strongly down-turned relative to the axis of the braincase. The flexed form of the wildebeest face isn’t just there because the animals are standing with their noses pointing downwards. Rather, the face really is pointing downwards instead of forwards (this isn’t a unique feature of wildebeests: it’s true of most of the other alcelaphines as well). Wildebeest are also unusual in having proportionally large lateral hooves (the two smaller digits on either side of the central pair).

Cross-sections of wildebeest (at left) and gerenuk skulls to show the strongly down-turned facial axis in the wildebeest relative to the basicranial axis. By the way, the gerenuk skull isn't exactly 'typical' either, but that's a story for another time. Diagram from Spinage (1986).

Books to check when writing about African megamammals... though note that I don't own Groves & Grubb (2011). Image by Darren Naish.

We think of wildebeest as a ‘poor’ group in taxonomic terms, since there are only two generally recognised named species, both included in the same genus. However, the two have been considered distinct enough at times that they’ve been given their own subgenera. In 1850, John Gray created the name Gorgon for the Brindled wildebeest (the Black wildebeest is the type species for the name Connochaetes Lichtenstein, 1814). Also of interest is the fact that the name Catoblepas was suggested for wildebeest at one point – a name based on a heavy-headed, sluggish, scaly mythical beast of ‘Ethiopia’, mentioned by Pliny the Elder and said to have the power to turn viewers to stone with its gaze. Needless to say, wildebeest might have had something to do with the origin of this creature.

The Brindled wildebeest: a species complex?

As for that low number of species… Well, as with so many big, widespread mammals, variation observed across the different populations has been reflected in numerous proposals of new species and subspecies. Four ‘subspecies’ have been suggested for the Black wildebeest (none of which are considered currently valid), and 15 for the Brindled wildebeest, four or five of which are still in use. According to Kingdon (1997), these are the nominal Blue wildebeest C. t. taurinus, the Nyassa or Cookson’s wildebeest C. t. cooksoni of the Luangwa Valley, the Mozambique wildebeest C. t. johnstoni of the south-east [image below by Nevit Dilmen], the White-bearded wildebeest C. t. albojubatus of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, and Heck’s wildebeest C. t. hecki of the western part of the Rift Valley.

Brindled wildebeest photographed in Tanzania: I'm pretty sure this is a member of the johnstoni subspecies (or species). Image by Nevit Dilmen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

However, those of you interested in hoofed mammals will know that Colin Groves and Peter Grubb have recently made an enormous number of suggested taxonomic recommendations in their book Ungulate Taxonomy (Groves & Grubb 2011). Therein, they argue that the Brindled wildebeest is actually a complex containing four species that can be reliably distinguished on the basis of cranial morphometrics. They recognised C. taurinus and C. johnstoni in the south, and C. albojubatus and C. mearnsi in the north. The two southern species, they say, have far wider horn-spans than the northern ones, with C. mearnsi being especially narrow across the horns. C. mearnsi is also especially small, dark and long-tailed compared to the others. C. johnstoni is also unusual in having especially long nasal bones and in sometimes possessing a white facial crescent between or below the eyes (Groves & Grubb 2011) [adjacent image by Nevit Dilmen]. These forms also differ in whether their manes are erect or drooping, and they differ in various aspects of their colouration, too. [Image below from German Federal Archive.]

Another presumed johnstoni, photographed in what was then Deutsch Ostafrika (now Tanzania) some time between 1906 and 1918: I've included it because it shows how prominent the white facial stripe can be in this form. Photo by Walther Dobbertin and from the German Federal Archive; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

As of yet, I don’t see any indication that these taxonomic recommendations have caught on, and it’s difficult to say if they will (when you do find specific comments on the Groves and Grubb taxonomy – as you do in Lorenzen et al. (2012) – it’s usually something along the lines of “we have not followed their species delimitations”!). And, as is usually the case with suggestions of this sort, arguments over whether these clearly distinct populations really are ‘distinct enough’ to be regarded as ‘species’ is generally subjective and dependent on the philosophy of the scientist concerned. It doesn’t really make any difference either way. I do think that we should try to be consistent across groups of animals, however. [Map below by Cephas.]

Range map of the Brindled wildebeest subspecies/species. Created by Cephas, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

So – are these different forms of wildebeest similar in their degree of distinction (I mean, in molecular or morphometric terms) to other bovid taxa conventionally regarded as species? Arctander et al. (1999) found a distinct population structure in the Brindled wildebeest, with the northern (= east African) populations showing evidence of having descended from the southern ones. This pattern probably shows that living Brindled wildebeest are ancestrally southern animals that invaded eastern Africa relatively recently (within the last million years). However, the complication with this is that the oldest Brindled wildebeest fossils (dating to about 1.5 million years ago) are from east Africa meaning that – if the genetic results from the modern populations have been interpreted correctly – the old east African population(s) became extinct, the species (or species complex!) then persisting only in a southern refugium, and only later re-invading the old part of its range (as well as new ones, like the far north of Africa). Patterns of this sort have been suggested for several African bovid lineages (Arctander et al. 1999, Flagstaff et al. 2001), so this is actually familiar stuff.

And that, my friends, is how a couple of picture and text saying “Look: wildebeest!” turns into a Tet Zoo article. Grrr.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on bovids, see…

Refs – -

Arctander, P., Johansen, C. & Coutellec-Vreto, M.-A. 1999. Phylogeography of three closely related African bovids (tribe Alcelaphini). Molecular Biology and Evolution 16, 1724-1739.

Estes, R. D. 2000. The evolution of conspicuous coloration in the family Bovidae: female mimicry of male secondary characters as catalyst. In Vrba, E. & Schaller, G. S. (eds) Antelopes, Deer, and Relatives. Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 234-246.

Flagstad, Ø., Syvertsen, P. O., Stenseth, N. C. & Jakobsen, K. S. 2001. Environmental change and rates of evolution: the phylogeographic pattern within the hartebeest complex as related to climatic variation. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 268, 667-677.

Gentry, A. W. 1978. Bovidae. In Maglio, V. J. & Cooke, H. B. S. (eds). Evolution of African Mammals. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp. 54-572.

Groves, C. & Grubb, P. 2011. Ungulate Taxonomy. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Kingdon, J. 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press, San Diego.

Lorenzen, E. D., Heller, R. & Siegismund, H. R. 2012. Comparative phylogeography of African savannah ungulates. Molecular Ecology 21, 3656-3670.

Spinage, C. A. 1986. The Natural History of Antelopes. Christopher Helm, London.

Stankovich, T. & Caro, T. 2009. Evolution of weaponry in female bovids. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 276, 4329-433.

von Richter, W. von 1974. Connochaetes gnou. Mammalian Species 50, 1-6.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Dartian 10:46 am 02/26/2014

    Excellent article, Darren! Gnus deserve more love!

    the tall shoulders have been linked to the evolution of an efficient (but not especially fast) cantering gait.

    Not especially fast? Aren’t wildebeest actually pretty fast runners (faster then, e.g., zebras)?

    They’ve now been reintroduced throughout South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Kenya and also Namibia.

    Reintroduced to Kenya? Black wildebeest have actually occurred there naturally?

    As of yet, I don’t see any indication that these taxonomic recommendations have caught on, and it’s difficult to say if they will

    Give it time. The primates were similarly revised taxonomically by Colin Groves in 2001; today, his taxonomy is pretty much the new standard. Not all of his taxonomic revisions have caught on, but remarkably many – indeed, perhaps even most – have.

    when you do find specific comments on the Groves and Grubb taxonomy [...] it’s usually something along the lines of “we have not followed their species delimitations”!

    That’s what most critics will *say* officially. What most critics really *think* seems to be more along the lines of ‘This is not the taxonomy that I grew up with, so it has to be wrong. It just has to!’. I have seen precious few thoughtful criticisms of Groves and Grubb’s taxonomic suggestions, but a whole bunch of emotion-based, knee-jerk ones. Even here on Tet Zoo (I won’t mention any names).

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  2. 2. Cameron McCormick 11:12 am 02/26/2014

    all those black vertical folds that you haven’t paid attention to before

    O.O — I always assumed those were just stray mane-hairs! Wow.

    BTW, there was a molecular phylogeny of Alcelaphini published earlier this year. I can’t access it, so I’m not sure if it discusses the proposed taxonomy of Groves & Grubb.

    Steiner, C. et al. (2014) Molecular Phylogeny and Chromosomal Evolution of Alcelaphini (Antilopinae). Journal of Heredity doi: 10.1093/jhered/esu004

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  3. 3. Andreas Johansson 11:28 am 02/26/2014

    The introductory paragaphs refer to both species as C. taurinus. I believe the Black wildebeest should be C. gnou.

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  4. 4. naishd 11:32 am 02/26/2014

    Thanks for comments so far. Cameron: I just checked Steiner et al. (2014) (thanks for the heads-up). It sticks with the two-species system and doesn’t even cite or mention Groves & Grubb (2011).

    Andreas (comment # 3): thanks for correction! More comments later…

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  5. 5. irenedelse 11:33 am 02/26/2014

    Too bad the name Catoblepas didn’t take. We already have dragons (lizards) and the extinct giant Livyatan as ‘mythical monsters’ from real life :-)

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  6. 6. BrianL 12:00 pm 02/26/2014

    A nice surprise to see mammals show up in these sauropsid-dominated weeks.
    Should we expect all or most species we consider sub-Saharan savannah dwellers to have been present in the Sahara up to early Holocene times? Would this include the likes of Aardvarks, Bat-eared Foxes, Crowned Cranes, Ground Hornbills, Secretarybirds, zebras, baboons, African Wild Dogs and Cape Buffalo? Should we also imagine these faunas to at least locally interact with the Palearctic faunas found in northernmost Africa?

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  7. 7. Dartian 12:20 pm 02/26/2014

    Brian: African wild dogs still live (or lived until very recently) as far north as in Algeria, i.e., within the Palearctic Region.

    Incidentally, the serval also still survives (if only barely) in NW Africa.

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  8. 8. irenedelse 1:06 pm 02/26/2014

    Dartian: According to the French language Wikipedia page, small groups of African Wild Dogs from the Saharan subspecies (Lycaon pictus saharicus) are still present in sthe Hoggar mountains of Algeria and the Ifoghas mountains in Mali, and in coastal regions of Mauritania and Western Sahara. All these areas are difflicult to access, and some like Western Sahara are disputed territories.

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  9. 9. irenedelse 1:18 pm 02/26/2014

    As for the serval, the North African subspecies is indeed critically endangered. There was a reintroduction program in Tunisia, but from East African stock:

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  10. 10. BilBy 6:36 pm 02/26/2014

    @Dartian Black wildebeest were only ever found in Southern Arica, and almost wiped out. Only a few were left on private farms eventually. They are, amongst a lot of competition, simply the best antelope in Africa: they rock along like animated rocking horses crossed with demonic gargoyles, they snort and burp and lipfart, they take off in little skittering circles and buck and jump for no apparent reason. I absolutely love them. If we are to continue the antelope theme, the other alcelaphines deserve some love – nontebok, blesbok, hartebeest. Thanks Darren.

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  11. 11. Tayo Bethel 2:02 am 02/27/2014

    I always thought wildebeests were quite fast runners. Zebras are not especially fast compared to most large antelopes though. Still, I can understand why such large antelopes might be adapted for an efficient mode of long distance travel while still being able to run swiftly enough to give them an edge over most large predators. Slightly off topic–many sources state that wolflike canids are specialized for an efficient trotting gait,but most observers describe wolves as loping.. What gives? Sorry for the off topic drift (:)

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  12. 12. Dartian 6:19 am 02/27/2014

    hybrids between the two kinds are known (von Richter 1974), though they only seem to have occurred in semi-captive settings

    They definitely hybridise in the large South African game reserves (which I personally would describe as “semi-natural settings” rather than “semi-captive settings” – but let’s not get into that kind of semantics). This hybridisation seems to have been so extensive that, according to some estimates, there are very few genetically ‘pure’ black wildebeest in South Africa today (Grobler et al. 2005, 2011).


    Grobler, J.P., Hartl, G.B., Grobler, N., Kotze, A., Botha, K. & Tiedemann, R. 2005. The genetic status of an isolated black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) population from the Abe Bailey Nature Reserve, South Africa: microsatellite data on a putative past hybridization with blue wildebeest (C. taurinus). Mammalian Biology 70, 35-45.

    Grobler, J.P., Rushworth, I., Brink, J.S., Bloomer, P., Kotze, A., Reilly, B. & Vrahimis, S. 2011. Management of hybridization in an endemic species: decision making in the face of imperfect information in the case of the black wildebeest–Connochaetes gnou. European Journal of Wildlife Research 57, 997-1006.

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  13. 13. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:22 am 02/27/2014

    Perhaps thick neck is an adaptation to efficient foraging and habitually carrying the head low. Shorter windpipe etc.

    Wildebeest may well be adapted to energy-efficent slow walk rather than quick run. Birds of prey also have wings adapted more to low-energy gliding than fast powered flight.

    This hybridization makes splitting wildebeest into many species difficult. You begin to deal with huge hybrid populations.

    Interesting would be to try definition of species as delimitation which separates individuals into groups with minimal number of hybrid individuals. For practical reasons, dealing with hybrids is difficult. If you have a national park with hybrids between white-bearded wildebeest and mearnsi, should this population count towards the preservation of gene pool of which form, both or none?

    I still like crocodiles more than wildebeest. Really, I tasted both! ;)

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  14. 14. naishd 10:33 am 02/27/2014

    Thanks to all for great comments. Some brief responses for now: on wildebeest speed, I have read a few times that wildebeest are slow compared to most other cursorial bovids (and deer and so on). However, their endurance may be better.

    On the natural range of the Black wildebeest: so far as I understand, the natural range is indeed limited to South Africa (and Lesotho and Swaziland). As goes Kenya, I screwed up, but I based it on a reference somewhere that did definitely refer to “reintroduction” in this country. The same reference also said that the introduction to Namibia was novel and did not reflect part of the animal’s natural range.

    Interesting about the hybrids! I’ve heard that hybridisation may present a danger to the integrity of the Black wildebeest (this being the one that’s been of conservation concern).

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  15. 15. Jenny Islander 2:33 pm 02/27/2014

    So far I’ve read plausible arguments for the following:

    Cyclopes: fossil dwarf elephants (or mammoths?)
    Western dragons: fossil rhinoceri
    Roc: albatross
    Catoblepas: wildebeest
    Griffin: lammergeier/griffon vulture/Protoceratops fossils
    Cockatrice: cobra

    Anybody know of others?

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  16. 16. Halbred 6:22 pm 02/27/2014

    Western dragons are fossil rhinos and not fossil dinosaurs/pterosaurs?

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  17. 17. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:57 pm 02/27/2014

    @Jenny Islander
    Try the following book: H Wendt. Out of Noah’s Ark. The story of man’s discovery of the animal kingdom.

    Contains the origin and evolution of myths of fictional animals like dragon, unicorn or yeti. And fascinating stories how people across centuries pieced together the truth, plus many stories of heroic explorers discovering exotic lands.

    BTW, there is a niche in the market to write about the evolution of animal-related myths in the modern time.

    For example, how agressive stallion onager (wild ass) turned into the myth of lusty unicorn, and then into a a symbol of purity. How medieval dragons and trolls became quite different creatures in the current fantasy literature.

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  18. 18. Jenny Islander 7:03 pm 02/27/2014

    @Halbred no. 16: Look up the Klagenfurt Dragon Fountain sometime. It was modeled from actual dragon bones found in the vicinity: that is, disarticulated woolly rhinoceros bones. The similarity between the Klagenfurt Wurm and other dragons from the north and west of Europe suggests that other people drew similar conclusions from finding big heavy skulls associated with extremely large clawlike objects (rhino horns fall off as the carcass decays) and lots and lots of vertebrae.

    Incidentally, the Klagenfurt Wurm has been called the very first life restoration ever done (in the West or at all–can’t recall which).

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  19. 19. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:17 pm 02/27/2014

    BTW – Western dragon is a composite of many things – Nile crocodile among others.

    Comparative mythology (I think it is the right name) is own branch of science. It is something which can be studied objectively using serious methodology. Sometimes I see in the internet obviously wrong explanations where various mythical animals come from – and I feel they should not be repeated.

    BTW, it also means that an ethnologist might study Darren and his Cryptonomicon as a part of modern mythology!

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  20. 20. vdinets 7:25 pm 02/27/2014

    Jenny: I’ve read a thorough analysis totally debunking the griffon-Protoceratops theory. If I remember correctly, one of the main arguments was that griffons had been a popular motif in Greek art long before any possible Central Asian contact. Apparently, this is a well-known fact, despite the theory’s author’s claims to the contrary.

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  21. 21. Tayo Bethel 11:28 pm 02/27/2014


    According to Wikipedia, the top speed of a running wildebeest is about 80 km per hour. Havent checked any more reliable sources yet in regards to speed, but all agree that wildebeests have phenomenal endurance.

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  22. 22. irenedelse 2:22 am 02/28/2014

    Darren, I’m curious about the “male mimicry” in female wildebeest and the link to their social organization. The comparison to spotted hyenas comes to mind. Do I understand correctly that in both species, competition between females seem to be driving this physical similarity between the sexes size and physical appearance? And is there anything known about the genetic/developmental mechanism underneath? Do female wildebeest have high levels of testosterone too? Curious minds enquire ;-)

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  23. 23. naishd 4:16 am 02/28/2014

    On the idea that elephant skulls might have inspired the cyclops legend, Mayor (and others) indicate that this is probably nonsense invented in the 20th century (specifically, apparently, by Othenio Abel in about 1914). The ancients were fairly familiar with elephant skulls and there are no special reasons for linking pygmy elephants with the legend.

    Jerzy (comment # 19): Cryptozoologicon! Buy it here on amazon.

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  24. 24. Yodelling Cyclist 9:05 am 02/28/2014

    Off topic, but since there’s been discussion within the Tetzoosphere of trans-Beringia migrations of late, I felt I should raise this article:

    It discusses human migration (on grounds of genetics) across Beringia and the nature of the Beringian flora. The authors of the original study suggest that the flora may not have been suitable for large grazers/browsers such as those adapted for the “true” tundra grasslands. Possibly a solution for our rhino problem (still confused about the sloths, but I know very little of their biology).

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  25. 25. Heteromeles 11:31 am 02/28/2014

    @vdinets: Can you cite the reference for the protoceratops debunking? The reason I’m asking is that the Proto-Indo-European language “evolved” on the steppes east of the Black see before 4000 BCE, at least as I recall the argument from David Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel, and Language. Since all the known Greek languages descended from PIE, well, I’d really love to see the evidence that said there was no prior contact. Since the Tarim Mummies seem to also be descendents of the PIE peoples, I’d say that there’s continuity across central Asia going back quite a ways.

    Anyway, what happened to the wildebeest thread? I was just reading it, and thinking that all those antelopes are the closest we’ll ever come to trying to figure out how ceratopsians had all those weird horn-shaped objects on their heads.

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  26. 26. Andreas Johansson 11:59 am 02/28/2014

    Acc’d to WP with cites, griffons are found in pre-dynastic Egyptian art (4th millennium BC), but in Central Asia apparently only from Achaemenid times (550-330 BC, roughly). This hardly suggests an origin in Inner Asia for the legend.

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  27. 27. Hydrarchos 3:22 pm 02/28/2014

    @ #15: I suppose albatrosses (or other large tropical seabirds, e.g. frigatebirds) could have contributed to the Roc/Rukh legends, but I always thought the accepted origin was Aepyornis (eggs, and just possibly adults being interpreted as pre-fledging chicks of an even bigger flying bird).

    Unicorns = Elasmotherium (the one I actually find most plausible)

    The Pygmy/Crane war has been suggested to have been inspired by stories of Homo floresiensis and giant, maybe-flightless Indonesian Leptoptilos sp.

    I can’t help wondering if giraffe skeletons contributed something to imagination of Western dragons – or at least their skulls to some depictions in more modern fantasy art. Also, I can’t help wondering if Andrias salamanders contributed something to eastern dragon lore – they start out resembling a worm or fish, then over periods of hundreds or thousands of years gain more limbs, and eventually wings and human/superhuman intelligence, but ones that old were so rare they would hardly ever be encountered, maybe someone would be lucky enough to see the first few metamorphic stages of a young one though…

    Link to this
  28. 28. Yodelling Cyclist 3:59 pm 02/28/2014

    Pygmy/Crane war? Expand, please.

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  29. 29. Heteromeles 5:08 pm 02/28/2014

    Before I get back to the griffins, I think there’s pretty good evidence that the Egyptians knew about African Pygmies. Check out their god Bes.

    Anyway, about those Egyptian griffins. There’s this one strange picture that apparently came out of Naqada, apparently around 3500 BC. (link to picture. It’s stated that the idea came from “Mesopotamia,” and searches for griffins from Uruk in Sumer (about the right time period) unfortunately get redirected straight into Middle Earth, due to someone cluttering up Google with stuff about the Uruk Hai and griffins. Even assuming the information is accurate (and the Mesopotamian griffin images seem to be much younger than 3500 BCE), it suggests that the idea migrated westward into Egypt, and it could have still originated in central Asia.

    The bigged problem is, in the Naqada image we’re dealing with an archeologist’s griffin-as-category, which means it’s a composite image incorporating something raptor-ish and something cat-ish. Since the only picture I can find (see link above) is taken out of the context of the rest of the image, I don’t even know if it’s supposed to have wings or to be beneath a boat.

    As for why they don’t have griffin examples from Central Asia, I suspect the answer is that they don’t have much art in any form from Central Asia from that time. For example, Anthony (cited above) talks about the Yamna Culture, which was active around 3500 BC, and you can see examples of the grave goods associated with them on Wikipedia. N

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  30. 30. Hydrarchos 10:14 pm 02/28/2014

    From Wikipedia:

    “The Pygmies (Greek: πυγμαίος) were a tribe of diminutive humans in Greek mythology. Their name in Greek was Pygmaioi, from pygmê, the length of the forearm. According to the Iliad, they were involved in a constant war with the cranes, which migrated in winter to their homeland on the southern shores of the earth-encircling river Oceanus. One story describes the origin of the age-old battle, speaking of a Pygmy Queen named Gerana who offended the goddess Hera with her boasts of superior beauty, and was transformed into a crane.

    In art the scene was popular with little Pygmies armed with spears and slings, riding on the backs of goats, battling the flying cranes. The 2nd-century BC tomb near Panticapaeum, Crimea “shows the battle of human pygmies with a flock of herons”"

    It’s also known as the Geranomachy, which there are various scholarly article references for.

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  31. 31. Anthea Fleming 4:38 am 03/1/2014

    To get back to the Gnu, does anyone else remember the song by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, from a show called “At the drop of a Hat”?

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  32. 32. Dartian 4:48 am 03/1/2014

    Unicorns = Elasmotherium (the one I actually find most plausible)

    Why? We don’t know what Elasmotherium‘s horn looked like, because no such horns have been preserved as fossils. In fact, we can’t be certain that Elasmotherium even had a horn! Also, we currently have no real evidence that Elasmotherium ever coexisted with modern humans. (Vague cave paintings of supposedly one-horned rhinos are inconclusive at best.)

    The Pygmy/Crane war has been suggested to have been inspired by stories of Homo floresiensis and giant, maybe-flightless Indonesian Leptoptilos sp.

    Please tell me that suggestion was only made in jest.

    Link to this
  33. 33. Heteromeles 9:59 am 03/1/2014

    @31: Oh yes! Thanks for bringing that up. I love Flanders and Swann.

    Fortunately, YouTube provides:

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  34. 34. vdinets 4:25 pm 03/1/2014

    Heteromeles (#25): I found that text. It’s a blog post in Russian, but it mostly quotes Akurgal Ekrem. Orient und Okzident: die Geburt der griechischen Kunst, 1966.

    Main points: Greek griffins are very obviously of late Hittite origin. Hittite griffins have clearly evolved from similar motifs in Assyrian and ultimately Sumerian art. Scythian griffins post-date Greek ones, and have been shown to be a result of Greek influence. There are no griffins whatsoever in any art east of Don River, which is a long, long way from Gobi.

    There were other points, but I can’t read them because Russia is blocking Livejournal periodically (a routine action whenever there is a spike in public dissent).

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  35. 35. Heteromeles 6:47 pm 03/1/2014

    Thanks vdinets. I wonder if Ekrem Akurgal’s The Art of the Hittites (1962) has any of this in it. I can at least get to that one in a local library.

    Just for the heck of it, I searched on “Tarim griffin” since the Tarim basin mummies are apparently western and out near the Gobi. It kicked up a griffin from the Kingdom of Khotan ( I could easily believe that this design came from Greece, but it’s just to point that there are griffins east of the Don, just to muddy the waters.

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  36. 36. Andreas Johansson 2:17 am 03/2/2014

    There’s also griffins – or at least creatures refered to as griffins, pics on the ‘Net seem to show only heads, which may be considered inconclusive – from the Pazyryk burials.

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  37. 37. Heteromeles 10:29 am 03/2/2014

    Yeah, aren’t those griffins neat? The problem is the Pazyryk burials are iron age (400-300 BCE), while griffins have a bronze age history around the Mediterranean and fertile crescent and back to ~3500 BCE in Egypt, if you believe that image from Naqada is part of the griffin tradition and not just a doodle.

    Last summer I was actually reading up on the early steppe cultures for a project I was working on. It’s kind of an important area, because as the archeologists noted, some fairly fundamental things (wheels, chariots, horses, indo-European languages) came off those steppes starting around 4000-3000 BCE. Problem is, steppe graves from that time didn’t preserve much, so the material found is typically bone and stone, with the occasional soil cast of a wheel or such to clue the archeologists in that there was more in the grave. Based on what their descendents created, it’s quite likely that they made gorgeous fabric art, but if so, no one’s found a shred of it. If they decorated their clothes with griffins, that art has been lost to history.

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  38. 38. Andreas Johansson 12:46 pm 03/2/2014

    @Heteromeles #37: I wouldn’t call that a “problem” – I’m not, after all, arguing in favour of the griffin-Protoceratops connection!

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  39. 39. Heteromeles 2:28 pm 03/2/2014

    Too bad, I happen to like Mayer’s idea. :D

    Griffins or not, Mayer does make one case in her work that often gets missed: people who aren’t paleontologists collect fossils, and they’ve done so for a very long time. One case she does point out (and I’m going from memory here) is where a fossil bone that had been stored in a Greek temple was boxed up with the junk from an archeological dig and nearly pitched. She found the bone (I think it was from a woolly rhino) by going through the dig’s records, finding the box where the fossil was stored, and liberating it.

    According to Mayer, many archeologists don’t (or didn’t) think fossils in archeological contexts are worth even reporting in their digs. The paleontologists here may want to think about what could happen to their collections if museums fall into decay and are then excavated by future archeologists. Imagine if these future pot hunters stumbled over the buried remains of a museum’s offsite warehouse and pitched all the fossils as outside their field and not worthy of study or conservation. We can argue about whether she’s right or not, but I think her work is valuable all the same. To me, it was shocking how isolated paleontologists and archeologists are from each other.

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  40. 40. DavidMarjanovic 1:23 pm 03/4/2014

    Mayor, not Mayer.

    To me, it was shocking how isolated paleontologists and archeologists are from each other.

    Why? The objects of their research have almost nothing in common beyond usually requiring some sort of digging to get at. Even the methods of digging are starkly different.

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  41. 41. CS Shelton 2:06 am 03/13/2014

    I think the male model Clement Chabernaud looks like a gerenuk. Also, lovely! I’ll never think of gnus the same way. The black wildebeests are especially gorgeous.

    Link to this

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