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Dik-dik: The Tiny Antelope With the Embarrassing Name

This female Kirk's dik-dik (Madoqua kirkii) lives in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Africa is home to many species of antelope. Most, like wildebeests, gazelles and impala, are large, striking and majestic. And then there are the dik-diks (genus Modoqua). Usually weighing between 7 and 18 pounds (3 and 7 kilograms) and standing just 14 to 18 inches high (35 to 45 centimeters) when full grown, these little guys barely register among their beefier cousins, but they definitely max out the cuteness meter.

There are four species of dik-diks found throughout Africa, mostly in dry, semi-desert areas. Gunther's dik-diks live in the dry areas of east Africa, while Kirk's dik-diks are found in eastern and southwestern Africa. Silver dik-diks live in the low, dense thickets of Somalia's southeastern coast and in southeastern Ethiopia, and Salt's dik-diks are found in northern Kenya and eastern Sudan. Each of these species has multiple subspecies.

The Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Illinois, north of Chicago, is home to four dik-diks – one male and three females. Amy Roberts, senior curator of mammals at the zoo, spoke with us about these tiny antelopes.

The dik-dik's Bambi-like face is dominated by its prominent snout and dark eyes ringed with white markings. A black preorbital gland about the size of a pencil eraser looks like a dot at the corner of each eye. The gland secretes a black tarry substance that the dik-dik uses to mark its territory.

"In professional care and in their native habitat, the dik-dik will go up to a branch and look as if they're putting a branch in their eye," says Roberts. "They flick their head back and forth leaving the black substance that hardens to mark their territory. In the zoo world, some of the females will actually try to mark their keepers. I've worked with springers and dik-diks who've marked my kneecaps."

Dik-diks live in monogamous pairs, not in herds. Males are easily spotted by their short, 3-inch (8-centimeter) horns. Females usually bear two offspring in a year – gestation takes five to six months. The parents urge the elder offspring out of the territory as soon as it's full size, about seven months.

The territory can vary wildly in size, according to Roberts, who says it depends on the quality of the environment and the number of dik-diks the territory needs to support.

"There's almost always going to be a pair with one offspring, and if you have a new offspring, they'll drive the older one out," she says. "If there's a lot of cover and greenery available, they'll have a smaller range. But if it's a sparser environment with fewer places to hide with less food to eat they'll need a much bigger area."

dik-dik
A 13-day-old Salt's dik-dik (Madoqua saltiana) walks off a scale at the zoo in Duisburg, Germany, where it was born in 2015 and rejected by its mother.
ROLAND WEIHRAUCH/DPA/AFP/Getty Images

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What Do Dik-diks Eat?

Dik-diks are herbivores, browsers not grazers, eating the leaves of mostly acacia leaves and shrubs. They'll take advantage of their small size, eating seeds or flowers dropped by taller animals. In captivity, Roberts says they're fed alfalfa pellets enriched with vitamins and minerals.

"They eat those pellets like you would feed a horse or a cow, but they also get alfalfa hay," she says. "And we also provide browse – cut branches with fresh leaves – year 'round."

Dik-dik's get their name from the sound they make when they're frightened – they're skittish critters – and those who have heard it say it sounds more like a "z" than a "d." They make the noise through their very pliable snout which is also a highly evolved cooling system. Roberts compares it to a bellows, cooling the blood going to the brain, and the air going to the lungs.

"The structure (of the snout) is bigger than what their nose needs to be, there are a lot of folds that are moist and you've got dry air coming over (the folds)," Roberts says. "It's similar to when you are sweating and air blows over your skin evaporating the sweat; it cools you. The dik-dik's snout is cooling the blood immediately before it goes to the brain."

They have other desert adaptations as well. They don't require much water to survive and have high functioning kidneys; they rarely urinate and their feces are tiny and incredibly dry. They use a dung midden, or toilet area, as a territorial marking.

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Would a Dik-dik Make a Good Pet?

Though they are tiny, as small as a housecat in some cases, dik-diks are not domesticated and would not make good house pets.

"They have tiny slender legs that would be prone to breaking on hardwood or linoleum," Roberts says. "They are a flight species so they will run if they get scared and could injure themselves. Since they are monogamous if you kept only one it would not be an appropriate social grouping."

Roberts has worked with many mammals in her career but says she's had the opportunity to bottle raise many of the smaller antelopes and dik-diks are one of her favorite species.

"I go for the little guys," she says. "The smaller antelopes get overlooked. It's probably politically incorrect to say but sometimes the males can have little man syndrome. They get very tough and protective of their offspring. It's pretty funny when a 14-inch (35-centimeter) animal is aggressive toward you. But I like that."

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