This summer, I am lucky enough to be working with the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. I am participating in a research project involving a relatively obscure animal that lives in dense rain forests of the Congo: the okapi! Although I knew next to nothing about this unique hoofed mammal before this summer, I have already learned (and will continue to learn) about many aspects of this remarkable animal’s features and behaviors.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rumors of a “horned, horse-like mammal” began circulating, and suspicions of a missing link or a possible mystical creature arose (some even thought it could be a unicorn!). This led many adventurous biologists to go searching through the Congo for such a creature. After several journeys and observations, okapis were finally formally classified in the early 1900s.
The most striking feature of the okapi is its horizontal striped coat on parts of its front and back legs. These stripes act as a perfect camouflage in the rain forest, where they mimic the shadows produced by light piercing the canopy. Due to the presence of stripes, many people initially think that an okapi may be a zebra or one of its close relatives. However, okapis are in fact more closely related to giraffes. A more detailed look at an okapi’s head and distinct, giraffe-like tongue reveal many similarities between okapis and giraffes. Okapis actually have an even longer tongue than giraffes that can reach lengths up to 18 inches (45 centimeters)! They use this incredible tongue to browse for leaves and strip them off of tree branches.
My project for the summer involves placing wood shavings soaked in okapi urine at various places in the okapi exhibit and observing reactions to their presence. We will also be looking at stress hormone levels to test how an okapi, which is solitary in the wild, reacts to the (simulated) presence of another okapi in the area.
The results of this project will be extremely helpful for the okapis at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park and for other zoological institutions that are looking to display the incredibly unique and graceful okapi. Please check back for more details in my next blog!
Jay Schoen is a biology major at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is a Frabotta Endowed Summer Fellow with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.