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|Male, Etosha National Park|
|Female, Etosha National Park|
|Male, Etosha National Park|
|Female, Etosha National Park|
The springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) is a medium-sized brown and white antelope-gazelle of southwestern Africa. It is extremely fast and can reach speeds of 100 km/h (62 mph) and can leap 4 m (13 feet) through the air. The common name "springbok" comes from the Afrikaans and Dutch words spring = jump and bok = male antelope or goat.
The specific epithet marsupialis (Latin: marsupium, "pocket") derives from a pocket-like skin flap which extends along the middle of the back from the tail onwards. When the male springbok is showing off his strength to attract a mate, or to ward off predators, he starts off in a stiff-legged trot, jumping up into the air with an arched back every few paces and lifting the flap along his back. Lifting the flap causes the long white hairs under the tail to stand up in a conspicuous fan shape, which in turn emits a strong scent of sweat. This ritual is known as stotting or pronking from the Afrikaans meaning to boast or show off.
Springboks are slender, long-necked antelopes, with a total length of 150 to 195 cm (59 to 77 in), and horns present in both sexes. Adults are between 70 and 90 cm (28 and 35 in) tall at the shoulder, depending on weight and gender; they weigh between 30 and 44 kg (66 and 97 lb) for the females and 33 and 48 kg (73 and 106 lb) for the males. The tail is 15 to 30 centimetres (5.9 to 11.8 in) long.
Their colouring consists of a pattern of white, reddish/tan and dark brown. Their backs are tan-coloured and they are white beneath, with a dark brown stripe extending along each side from the shoulder to inside the thigh. The face is white in adults, with a dark patch on the forehead, and a stripe running from just above the eyes to the corner of the mouth. The hooves and horns are black, and the tail is white with a black tuft at the tip.
Rams are slightly larger than ewes, and have thick horns; the ewes tend to have skinnier legs and longer, more frail horns. The horns are, however, of similar shape in both sexes, with a hook-like tip that curves inwards, and a series of rings along their length. The average horn length for both genders is 35 cm (14 in), with the record being a female with horns measuring 49.21 centimetres (19.37 in). Springbok footprints are narrow and sharp, and are 5.5 cm (2.2 in) long. springbok are distinguished from gazelles in that they only have two premolar teeth in each side of each jaw, instead of three, and therefore a total of twenty eight teeth, rather than thirty.
There are three variations in the color of springbok pelage. In addition to the normal-coloured springboks there are also black and white morphs. Although born jet black, adult "black" springboks primarily have two shades of chocolate-brown and a white marking on the face. White springboks are predominantly white with a very light brown coloured side stripe.
Springbok inhabit the dry inland areas of south and southwestern Africa. Their range extends from the northwestern part of South Africa through the Kalahari desert into Namibia and Botswana. Springbok occur in numbers of up to 2,500,000 in South Africa; it is the most plentiful antelope. They used to be very common, forming some of the largest herds of mammals ever documented, but their numbers have diminished significantly since the 19th century due to hunting and fences from farms blocking their migratory routes.
In South Africa, springbok inhabit the vast grasslands of the Free State and the open shrublands of the greater and smaller Karoo. They inhabit most of Namibia – the grasslands of the south, the Kalahari desert to the east, and the dry riverbeds of the northern bushveld of the Windhoek region, as well as the harsh Namib Desert on the west coast. In Botswana, they mostly live in the Kalahari Desert in the southwestern and central parts of the country.
Three subspecies are recognised:
Springbok are mixed feeders, switching between grazing and browsing seasonally. When grasses are fresh, they mostly graze. At other times, they browse on shrubs and succulents. Springbok can meet their water needs from the food they eat, and survive without drinking water through dry season, or even over years. Reportedly, in extreme cases, they do not drink any water over the course of their lives. Springbok may accomplish this by selecting flowers, seeds, and leaves of shrubs before dawn, when these foods are most succulent. Springbok gather together in the wet seasons and spread out during the dry season, an unusual trait among African animals. In places such as Etosha, springbok can and do seek out water bodies when they are available. Examples of food items eaten by springbok are grasses, such as Themeda triandra, and succulent plants, such as Lampranthus.
Springbok are mainly active around dawn and dusk, although they may feed through the day in colder weather, or through the night at particularly hot times of the year. During the summer, they sleep in the shade of trees or bushes, although they often bed down in the open when the weather is cooler.
The social structure of the springbok is similar to the Thomson's gazelle. Bachelor males and females form separate herds, although mixed sex herds are also common, with a roughly 3:1 female:male ratio. These groups are normally kept separate by territorial males, which round up female herds that enter their territories and keep out the bachelors. Females may leave the herds solitarily or in groups to give birth. Mothers and fawns may gather in nursery herds separate from harem and bachelor herds. After weaning, female offspring stay with their mothers until a new young is born, while males join bachelor groups.
Outside of the rut, mixed sex herds can range from as few as three to as many as 180 individuals, while all-male bachelor herds are of typically no more than fifty individuals. Harem and nursery herds are much smaller, typically including no more than ten individuals. The Dutch/Afrikaans term trekbokken refers to the large-scale migration of herds of springbok seen roaming the country during the early pioneer days of South Africa before farm fences were erected. Millions of migrating springbok formed herds hundreds of kilometres long that could take several days to pass a town. These are the largest herds of mammals ever witnessed.
Springbok often go into bouts of repeated high leaps of up to 2 m (6 ft 7 in) into the air in a practice known as "pronking" (Afrikaans and Dutch: pronk, to show off) or "stotting". While pronking, the Springbok repeatedly leaps into the air in a particular stiff-legged posture, with its back bowed and the white fan lifted. While the exact cause of this behaviour is unknown, springbok exhibit this activity when they are nervous or otherwise excited. One theory is pronking is meant to indicate to predators that they have been spotted. Another is the springbok show off their individual strength and fitness so the predator will go for another (presumably weaker) member of the group. Another opinion is springbok and other similar antelopes do this to spray scent secreted from a gland near the heel.
Springbok make occasional low-pitched bellows as a greeting and high-pitched snorts when alarmed, but are otherwise relatively quiet animals.
Springbok mate year-round, although females may be more likely to enter oestrus during the rainy season, when food is more plentiful. During the rut, males establish territories, ranging from 10 to 70 hectares (25 to 173 acres), which they mark by urinating and depositing large piles of dung. Males in neighbouring territories frequently fight for access to females, which they do by twisting and levering at each other with their horns, interspersed with occasional stabbing attacks. Females wander between the territories of different males, rather than remaining in a single one for long periods of time. When one approaches a territorial male, the male holds his head and tail out horizontally, lowers his horns and makes a loud grunting noise to attract her. The male then urinates and sniffs the female's perineum. If the female is receptive, she also urinates, and the male makes a flehmen gesture, and taps her leg until the female either leaves or permits him to mate.
Gestation lasts 168 days, and results in the birth of a single calf, or, rarely, twins. The young weigh from 3.8 to 5 kg (8.4 to 11.0 lb) at birth, and are initially left under shelter, such as a bush, while the female feeds elsewhere. Mother and calf rejoin the herd about three to four weeks after birth, and the young are weaned at five to six months. Springbok typically leave their mother when she next gives birth, by which time they are normally about six to twelve months old. Females are sexually mature at seven months, but rarely mate during their first year, while males are mature at two years of age. Springbok live for up to ten years.
Leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and lions are the springbok's primary predators. A study in the Etosha National Park found that springboks are the most common prey species for lions, accounting for nearly seventy percent of the hunts. Pythons occasionally take springboks; black-backed jackals, caracals, and eagles often take springbok lambs.
It shares its range with many other herbivores, such as the gemsbok, African bush elephant, blue wildebeest, plains zebra, and blesbok. It is sympatric with the impala only in certain corners of its range, such as Etosha National Park and the Pilanesberg area.
Fossil springbok are known from the Pliocene, and appear to have first evolved about three million years ago, from a gazelle-like ancestor. Three fossil species have been identified, in addition to the extant form, and appear to have been widespread across Africa. Two of these, Antidorcas bondi and A. australis, became extinct during the early Holocene, about 7,000 years ago. The third species, A. recki, probably gave rise to the living form during the Pleistocene, about 0.1 million years ago.
Since prehistory, the springbok was hunted by primitive man using stone tools. Up to the present, springbok are hunted as game throughout Namibia, Botswana and South Africa because of their beautiful coats, and because they are very common and easy to support on farms with very low rainfall, which means they are cheap to hunt, as well. The export of springbok skins, mainly from Namibia and South Africa, is also a booming industry. The meat is a prized fare.
Springbok are one of the few antelope species considered to have an expanding population.
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The springbok was a national symbol of South Africa under white minority rule (including a significant period prior to the establishment of apartheid). It was adopted as a nickname or mascot by a number of South African sports teams, most famously by the national rugby union team. It appeared on the emblems of the South African Air Force, the logo of South African Airways (for which it remains their radio callsign), the reverse of the Krugerrand, and the coat of arms of South Africa. It also featured as the logo of 'South Africa's Own Car', the Ranger, in the early 1970s.
The former South African prime minister and architect of apartheid, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, had a dream to change the then-current flag of South Africa, remove the three small flags in its center (he objected especially to the British Union Flag being there) and replace them with a leaping springbok antelope over a wreath of six proteas. This proposal aroused too much controversy to be implemented.
The springbok is currently the national animal of South Africa.
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After the demise of apartheid, the African National Congress government decreed that South African sporting teams were to be known as the Proteas after the national flower of South Africa. The national rugby team still maintains the name Springboks, and are affectionately known by their supporters as the Boks. The emblem issue occasionally resurfaces and leads to some political controversy. It is recognised and supported by most South Africans, however.
During the Second Boer War, a Boer force attempting to sneak up on the Royal Canadian Dragoons was defeated after their movements startled the nearby springbok, thus alerting the Canadian sentries, which is why the Dragoons have the springbok as their cap badge and as their mascot.