Thursday, 1 September 2011

Why Are There So Many Wildebeest Compared to Other Animals in The Serengeti?

Herds crossing into Kenya.
Having been on safari for the last couple months, I’m unworthy of being called a co-author of this blog considering the wonderful posts that Colin has been writing. In my travels I have been to the Serengeti ecosystem four times in the last few months, three times in Serengeti and once in Maasai Mara and of course we have followed the spectacular herds of wildebeest.

When you’re driving through hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, or watching tens of thousands plunge into the Mara river because the grass is greener on the other side, its hard to wonder why there are so many of them. Why not zebra, topi, kongoni, impala, dikdik or one of the other antelopes?

So, I thought I would explore this topic and discovered this wonderful paper online, which you can download if you want to read a more scientific explanation. (Click here )

Part of Colin’s themes has been that there are things that shape or influence the environment, and that the environment then shapes the species in it. It’s a two-way interaction that steers what happens. E.g. When there is predation on plants they evolve defense mechanisms like thorns or chemicals.

So, what is it about the Serengeti that promotes these massive herds of wildebeest?

The simple answer:
Climate and soils.

The Serengeti ecosystem extends between two geologically significant features:

In the east, are the rift valley volcanoes that blew volcanic ash over the eastern part of the Serengeti, starting millions of years ago. These became the extremely fertile short grass plains between Maswa and Piyaya.
The short grass plains of Piyaya- the volcanoes in the distance.

In the west, Lake Victoria gives the north-western Serengeti a much higher rainfall (1200mm) than south-eastern Serengeti (500mm), especially when everywhere else is dry.  

Put these two factors together and you have high quality grazing every month of the year. In the wet months of the year (Feb, March, April), the soils in the short grass plains make the grass particularly excellent grazing with extra dose of calcium and phosphorous - perfect if you are a wildebeest trying to make milk for your calf. In the dry season- well, you migrate to where its raining and you find green grass which is much more nutritious than dry grass. (Wildebeest need 30% more energy, 5 times as much calcium, 3 times more phosphorous and 2 times as much sodium when they are lactating than pregnant and the short grass plains are perfect.)
A newborn wildebeest in Piyaya. It stands within 20 minutes
 to suckle. The milk is a high-cost to the mother but she
survives because of the minerals in the grass.

So, now we understand that the whole 25,000km2 Serengeti ecosystem always has nutritious grass (and drinking water) somewhere at all times of the year. The next question we have to investigate is- why wildebeest? Why not zebra, topi, kongoni, eland etc. etc?
The simple answer:
                   Wildebeest are special.

As you might know, wildebeest belong to a tribe of antelopes called the Alcelaphines. This means they are fairly closely related and if you want to know how close, well, they are about 4 million–year-old cousins. All of them are ruminants, which means they have a four-chambered stomach that they use to digest cellulose. Rumination is a very efficient way of extracting nutrients from plants but each species will have it’s own efficiency and Coke’s hartebeest are actually the most efficient of the three species. So why isn’t it Coke’s hartebeest?
Topi in the long less nutritious grass on the Lamai wedge

We can start by looking at the mouth structure of these animals and realizing that wildebeest actually have a mouth that is perfect for eating grass that is 3cm high, which is when the grass has the highest levels of protein.

The next thing they do is chose the parts of the grass that are also more nutritious- the leaves and fresh shoots. Coke’s hartebeest and topi eat more stems and leaf sheaths than wildebeest, zebra survive on almost only stems. But there’s a lot more grass stems than grass leaves so you would rather expect zebra populations to be in the millions but they aren’t- what is actually happening, is that zebras suffer very high losses of young, so predators keep zebra numbers down.

Now, you might ask, why aren’t wildebeest populations kept low by predators?

Answer: Synchronized reproduction and rumination.

80% of wildebeest calves are born in 3 weeks in February= 250,000 wildebeest calves= 500 per hour. It is an amazing sight. In scientific terms: extreme synchronous breeding outstrips predator’s ability to limit wildebeest recruitment.

Calves are most vulnerable when they are very young but they reach a certain age when they become equally vulnerable as the other wildebeest. There is a limit to how many calves predators can take per day, so by all having their babies at the same time, more calves have the chance to live past the age where they are vulnerable. Topi and hartebeest do not have as synchronized breeding as wildebeest.
Zebra on the extra nutritious short grass plains.

As we mentioned before, wildebeest are ruminants. They spend about 8hrs a day grazing so they have 16hrs a day to look for predators. Zebra on the other hand, spend 15hrs a day grazing so they only have 9hrs to look for predators. This is because they are hind-gut fermentators. This is obviously simplified.

Now, we’ve established the benefit of synchronized breeding but there are other advantages to being a wildebeest. Serengeti’s short grass plains are the best place for the females to get the nutrients they need to lactate, but they are also a great place to spot predators, which also helps to reduce the number of calves killed before they are out of the vulnerable stage.

Finally, calves are born precocial with a very strong imprinting instinct. The mother and calf learn to recognize each other immediately by smell and the calf stands as soon as it can and then stays as close to its mother as possible. The calf then also tends to run on the hidden side of the female so that predators have a harder time seeing them. The effect= reducing predation.
Wildebeest calve's coats change color to look like their
mothers at 2 months. Predation drops drastically.

There are other minor influences and for more details download the paper, but to try to sum it up in a sentence: The Serengeti’s unique climate and soils provide the perfect conditions to allow wildebeest to live in such large migratory herds because of wildebeest’s unique biology.

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