You know those animals you see at the zoo that look like a combination of several other animals? Have you ever seen the one with the giraffe-like face, horse-like body, and zebra-striped rump? Well, that’s an okapi (oh-cop-ee), and they are going to be spending all summer with me.
Contrary to the eye, the okapi is not a combination of a giraffe, a horse, and a zebra; they are indeed their own species. Their closest living relative is the giraffe, with which they share many similar physical characteristics such as their long necks, extremely long tongues, and even ossicones (horn-like structures that only male okapis develop). While the giraffe has the height, the okapi has the longest tongue: it’s long enough to reach its eyes and ears! Not much is known about the behavior of the okapi because they are very elusive creatures where they reside in the Ituri Forest of Congo in Africa. This is where I come in.
The goal of this project is to study the okapi’s use of its environment at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. We are particularly interested in the daily behavior of this species, as it is solitary in the wild and little is known about its activity patterns. Our project will investigate how certain odors (which mimic the presence of other okapis in the enclosure) will affect an individual’s activity. Specifically, we will be placing urine-soaked wood shavings from one male in different parts of the exhibit and conducting daily behavioral observations. We will also analyze associated levels of a key stress hormone, cortisol. I will be working with all seven okapis at the Wild Animal Park as well as one okapi at the San Diego Zoo.
I’ve just started observations at the Wild Animal Park. I’ll keep everyone posted on my findings. And remember, if you want some more fun okapi facts, look for me! I’ll be the girl with the clipboard and a stopwatch. Can’t wait to see everyone out there!
Lizzy Lopez is a recent University of California, Davis, graduate with a degree in wildlife, fish, and conservation biology, emphasis in behavioral ecology, and the Bonner Endowed Summer Fellow in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.