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How do gazelles use body language?

Gazelle Communication
If gazelles can't convince one another who is more dominant with their posturing, they'll lock horns to settle the dispute.
If gazelles can't convince one another who is more dominant with their posturing, they'll lock horns to settle the dispute.
David Tipling/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Like most ungulates -- hoofed animals like deer, horses and sheep -- gazelles are a pretty simple and straightforward bunch. They spend most of their time eating, sleeping and mating. Not surprisingly, then, the majority of gazelle communication and body language concerns securing mates and delineating their territories.

Male gazelles are interested in achieving a high social status. Most species of gazelle live in herds with a dominant male that gets first choice of territory and mating partners. The way to win dominance, it turns out, is to be the most intimidating.

While males occasionally resort to fighting and clashing horns in order to settle disputes, they're more likely to engage in a staring contest of sorts. To do this, they've developed a series of exaggerated display postures like pretend grooming, repeated scratching of the neck and head, and displaying side views of their body to scare others off. These ritualized poses are a way for the males to say "I'm the toughest guy here so back off," and that's usually all it takes to win control of the herd.

Once a gazelle achieves dominant status, he tends to rub it in -- literally. Male gazelles are fond of marking their territory with something called dung middens. They create these piles of feces by pawing at the ground, urinating over the scraped area and then depositing their dung. These collections of strategically placed fecal piles are created not just by the top dog, but by all males that want to indicate ownership.

Although one male is classified as dominant, subordinate gazelles can still compete for mating opportunities. Some gazelles compete for females by engaging in courtship displays with their horns. Although both the females and males of most gazelle species possess horns, only the males use them in an attempt to woo members of the opposite sex.

Aside from the more testosterone-fueled body language discussed so far, gazelles also have a few ways of letting one another know that danger is approaching. A few gazelle species, for instance, the Thomson's gazelle and the Grant's gazelle, have white rumps that they flash as warning signals by lifting their tails. Other gazelles stamp their front feet on the ground to indicate a disturbance.

In that sense, a gazelle isn't that different from a 3-year-old stomping his feet to signal his displeasure at being denied a treat. Hopefully, though, that 3-year-old won't try to woo the ladies by designing elaborate dung middens.