Antelope is a common name applied to a diverse group of hollow-horned mammals that belong to the same family as cattle, goats, and sheep. About 100 species of antelopes live in Africa and Asia, including some of the world’s fastest and most elegant hoofed mammals, as well as some of the most endangered.
In size, antelopes range from the tiny royal antelope, which stands about 25 cm (10 in) high at the shoulder, to the massively built common eland, which can weigh as much as 900 kg (nearly 2,000 lb)—more than an average car. Some better-known antelopes include impalas, gazelles, and gnus.
Antelopes vary widely in their physical appearance and the way they live. Some antelopes, including many of the smallest species, stay close to vegetative cover and disappear into the undergrowth if disturbed, but most live in more open habitats where they rely on speed and alertness to escape attack. The species that flee also use their superb jumping skills to escape from predators: impalas, for example, can leap over fences 3 m (10 ft) high, and cover 10 m (33 ft) in a single bound.
Some antelopes are solitary but most live in herds. In the late 1800s, herds of springbok in southern Africa sometimes included over 10 million animals that spread over a distance of 160 km (100 mi). Although herds no longer reach this astounding size today, antelopes still dominate life in African plains. They help grass thrive by nibbling away competing plants, and they provide food for predators and also for people.
Antelope Range and Habitat
About 5 million years ago at the beginning of the Pliocene Epoch, antelopes were widespread throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Today they live only in Africa and in central and southern Asia, with Africa having the greatest number of species. Antelopes have never lived in the Americas, although one North American mammal, the pronghorn, looks very much like an antelope and shares a similar way of life.
Although antelopes all eat plants, some are grazers, preferring to feed on grasses on the ground, while others browse vegetation from low-lying branches on trees and bushes. These feeding preferences determine their habitat. Some species, such as Thomson’s gazelles, live almost entirely on grass and rarely turn to any other kind of plant food. Thomson’s gazelles feed where the grass is short, a preference that restricts them to dry, open plains. By contrast, the common reedbuck feeds in swampy ground. It specializes in eating coarse grasses that other grazing antelopes find difficult to digest.
Browsing antelopes, unlike grazers, live in a wider variety of habitats, from tree-studded savannas to dense rain forests. Some of them feed exclusively on leaves, but most eat other kinds of food as well. This additional food usually includes flowers and fruit, but in the case of small forest antelopes called duikers, it also includes birds and animal remains.
Water also plays an important part in determining where antelopes live. For example, gnus need to drink every day, so they cannot wander more than about 15 km (9 mi) from the nearest river or waterhole. Other species can get all the water they need from their food. The addax, a critically endangered antelope that was once widespread along the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert, needs at least 3 litres (5 pints) of water a day. However, the addax can absorb all the water it needs from roots, bulbs, and fruit, enabling it to survive indefinitely without drinking from a waterhole.