One of the most frequent comments heard at the okapi exhibit in the Wild Animal Park’s Heart of Africa habitat is “Hey, it’s a zebra-horse!” However, okapis are not very closely related to either zebras or horses; the unusual and eye-catching okapi is most closely related to the giraffe.
In the wild, the okapi lives in the lush Ituri rain forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As a result of the density of its habitat, and its shy behavior, the okapi has proven extremely difficult to study in the wild. In fact, Western scientists only discovered the okapi in the early 1900s, and there is still a lot we have to learn about the species.
My name is Sarah Brzezinski, and this summer I am extremely excited to be working as an intern in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research to learn more about okapi behavior. I recently graduated from Dickinson College, where I majored in environmental science with a minor in biology. My past animal research includes monitoring green sea turtles and examining the distribution of gray whale cow-calf pairs compared to single individuals in Bahia Magdalena, off the coast of southern Baja California, Mexico.
For my research this summer, I will be examining the activity budget of the okapis that live at the Wild Animal Park: Ayana, Imara, Makini, and our one-year-old male, Zuri. My activity budget will allow me to compare the amount of time that our okapis spend performing specific behaviors, such as foraging or grooming. In addition, the activity budget will also help identify how frequently our okapis exhibit stereotypic behaviors. Stereotypic behaviors are repetitive activity patterns that do not have a clear goal or function in relation to the circumstances in which they are carried out, such as pacing or licking non-food objects.
I am also documenting how okapis are using their enclosure. By dividing the exhibit into sections and noting which part of the exhibit the individual is in at one-minute intervals, I can determine if some parts of the enclosure are more heavily visited than other areas. I will be recording behaviors and spatial data in the morning and afternoon, which will allow me to investigate if our okapis’ behavior and use of space changes much throughout the day.
Learning more about the behavior and enclosure use of okapis is important because an in-depth understanding of the species will allow us to enrich their lives in managed care and could provide some insight into the life of an elusive species. Come visit the okapi exhibit and see this amazing animal, and then check back later this summer to learn more about my research!
Sarah Brzezinski is the Neeper Summer Intern in the Behavioral Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.
Read a previous post about okapis, Secret Language of the Okapi.