springbok, (Antidorcas marsupialis), also called springbuck, graceful, strikingly marked antelope of the gazelle tribe, Antilopini (family Bovidae, order Artiodactyla). The springbok is native to the open, treeless plains of southern Africa. It once roamed in enormous herds but is now much reduced in numbers. It is the symbol and nickname of the national rugby team of South Africa.
Although closely related to true gazelles (genus Gazella), the springbok is placed in a separate genus because of a unique structure on its back that it displays when excited, consisting of a patch of white hair that is normally hidden beneath a skin fold but is erected during a special form of jumping known as pronking. The species name marsupialis refers to this concealed organ, which also happens to be lined with sebaceous scent glands.
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springbok© Digital Vision/Getty ImagesGeorge Holton/Photo Researchers
Native to southwest Africa, where it is the most abundant plains antelope, the springbok was once a dominant migrating species, along with the black wildebeest and the blesbok, in South Africa’s vast Highveld and Karoo regions, where it is still common on the farms and ranches that have subdivided and transformed this vast ecosystem. Migratory populations of springbok still exist in Botswana’s Kalahari and in the subdesert and desert of Namibia and southwestern Angola. Of the several recognized subspecies, which are adapted to different climatic and ecological conditions, the Highveld-Karoo variety (Antidorcas marsupialis marsupialis) is the smallest, and the variety of Namibia’s Kaokoveld (A. marsupialis hofmeyri) is the largest. Its shoulder height is 69–87 cm (27–34 inches), and its weight is 27–48 kg (59–106 pounds). The heavily ringed horns are 35–49 cm (14–19 inches) in length (smaller and thinner in females) and have an unusual stethoscope shape with hooked tips pointing inward. The coat is pale to rich cinnamon brown with extensive areas of white including the head, ears, underparts, backs of legs, rump, and tail. A heavy black side stripe, narrow cheek stripe, and tail tip contrast with the white markings.
© Franck Monnot/Fotolia
A mixed feeder comparable to Thomson’s gazelle, the springbok grazes during the rainy season and browses on foliage, forbs, and tsama melons during the dry season. It drinks when water is available but can subsist indefinitely on browse with a water content of at least 10 percent.
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Springboks have an annual rut that commences at the end of the rainy season when the animals are in peak condition; most young are born six months later in the spring, October and November, shortly before the rainy season begins. However, the timing may vary by as much as two months, reflecting the springbok’s adaptive response to the variability of arid climates. Females conceive as early as six to seven months of age, whereas males take two years to mature. Rutting males defend territories of 25–70 hectares (62–173 acres) with loud grunts, attacking vegetation with their horns and depositing middens of urine and dung in a ritualized display. Outside of the mating season, females and males often occur in mixed herds, which aggregate at water holes and at bursts of vegetation created by local thunderstorms.
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Although the spinal crest of white hair can be erected independently and pronking can be performed without unfolding the crest, the full display combines high, stiff-legged bounds with bowed back and lowered neck, during which the hair of the rump patch and spinal crest merge to form a big white patch. Springboks have been clocked at 88 km (55 miles) per hour, as fast as any gazelle, but they can be outrun by cheetahs over a short distance and by wild dogs over a long distance.