Wildlife TV

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Gemsbok: Desert Survivalists

on July 4, 2013

The continent of Africa is broad and diverse, from its deep, dark jungles to its vast, open deserts. This is a result of drastic variations in climate and topography (and sometimes human activity), and a result of such huge diversity of habitats is a huge diversity of species, all adapted to the biomes in which they live.

Deserts are an African biome that can sometimes be overlooked; we tend to think of lush savannahs and jungles before we associate arid scrubland and deserts with Africa, but these places certainly exist, in fact the world’s largest desert, the Sahara, is in Africa. But deserts are not always defined by oceans of sand and towering dunes, for example, the Kalahari desert in Southern Africa contains a wide diversity of geology and is home to a whole host of different animal and plant species. So what is a desert? A desert is a region defined by being very dry, predominantly as a result of very low rainfall and although they vary a lot in appearance, they all have this factor in common.

Plants and animals that live in desert or arid regions have to have specific adaptations, mostly to cope with extreme heat and extreme drought. One animal in particular showcases an impressive array of adaptations that make it a great survivalist in arid regions: the Gemsbok (Oryx gazella). Gemsbok are a large antelope in the oryx genus that have many interesting physical and behavioural characteristics that make them perfect for the hot, dry areas in which they live.

An adult Gemsbok (Oryx gazella) stands proudly in its desert habitat.

Gemsbok are large and graceful antelope.
It’s strange to notice how much their face looks like a Rorshasch test!
Photo Credits.

Perhaps the most useful adaptation to living in an area with very little water, is to drink very little water. Gemsbok can derive almost all the water they need from the food they eat, and if they can maintain a healthy diet, and not get ill, then they might never need to drink fresh water. But what do gemsbok eat? Their habitat can be quite desolate, however, where there are grasses the gemsbok will be found grazing. They are also quite adaptable with their diets and will browse on leafy plants if grasses are unavailable and in times of severe drought and food scarcity, they will dig up roots and tubers from the ground using their hooves; they will also do this to expose ground water hidden under the top soil. All of the water they digest, by one means or another, is used to maximum efficiency and gemsbok will try to avoid any activity that might lead to dehydration, they don’t even sweat and when faced by predators they will often stand their ground in the hopes that they might get lucky, rather than run away and risk exhaustion and dehydration. Also, gemsbok droppings are very dry as they do not release a lot of moisture when defecating.

The gemsbok anatomy is specifically geared towards living in arid conditions and it can be evident just by looking at them. They possess black a white patterning on various parts of their body, perhaps mostly notably on their Rorschach Test face mask, but also around their legs and underbelly; it is understood (although research is continuing) that light and dark pattern colouration serves to cool animals down. Dark/black areas absorb heat whereas light/white areas reflect heat and with these areas next to each other, micro-currents of air are formed which may help to cool the animal (zebra, more famously, use this strategy). Gemsbok also have a large white patch on their bellies that also help keep them cool, it reflects the heat that radiates from the sandy ground on which they walk; if anyone has been to a beach on a very hot day they’ll know how hot sand can get. It is also interesting to note that they have broad based hooves that give them extra traction in loose sand.

The ambient temperature in a typical gemsbok habitat might regularly reach 45 degrees (113 farenheit) and they are able to deal with it without even needing to rest in the shade due to a very specific physiological adaptation that helps them cope with extreme temperatures called panting, similar to how a dog breathes heavily through its mouth with its tongue lolling, however, gemsbok do it quite differently.

Gemsbok practice nasal panting which is, as it sounds, when the animal inhales and exhales rapidly through its nose; the nose is lined with capillaries, a network of small blood vessels that are cooled by the air pulled into the nose and when this cooled blood passes close to the brain, it helps keep the brain cool. By keeping their brain cool, gemsbok can allow the rest of their body to rise in temperature without too much ill effect. They can radiate excess body heat away at the end of the day as the air cools, and they often can be sighted standing on top of dunes or other elevated areas to catch evening breezes. It is claimed that if you hold a mirror in front of a gemsbok’s nose while it is panting, the mirror will not mist up because their breath has so little moisture in it.

Gemsbok (Oryx gazella) gazing in the Nambi Desert at the foot of a mighty sand dune.

Gemsbok gazing in the Nambi Desert at the foot of a mighty sand dune; they truly live in an astonishing environment.
Photo Credits.

So, hopefully you’ve learn a few things about why gemsbok are such experts at desert living. They are remarkable animals and beautiful too, many reserves in less arid areas import them because they’re so wonderful to see when on safari, but their true heartland, where they are in their prime, is a difficult place where many other animals fail to even survive.

Much love,



5 responses to “Gemsbok: Desert Survivalists

  1. Alison Jobling says:

    This is amazing! We’ve got a similar large desert in the centre of our continent, but we don’t have any animals that have such unusual adaptations. Do you know how old this species is (i.e. when it diverged from its predecessor species)? And how are the numbers of this one – is it prevalent or threatened?

    • Wildlife TV says:

      Yeah, most deserts will have small reptiles or arthropods but it’s wonderful to see that such a large mammal can live perfectly ‘happily’ in such a difficult habitat, and in great numbers; they’re very much a prevalent species, which I think is thanks, in part, to the fact that they live in an environment that isn’t really sought after by humans, and also they are exported all over Africa to game reserves for tourist reasons. I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything about the age of the species though 😦

      • Alison Jobling says:

        No worries, Nick: I’d guess that the species is fairly old, given that it’s so amazingly well adapted to its environment. Sort of intriguing too to think that we’re affecting the evolution of many animals, not just by encroaching on their habitats, but in a more positive way by selecting for species that we find interesting to look at.

  2. Adam Pine says:

    Great web:5 star

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