You'd think being able to run 40 mph (64 kph) would be fast enough to outrun any problem. But if you live in the open plains where one of the top predators is a cheetah that can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (97 kph) in three seconds, you're going to need a few more tricks in order to stay alive.
Gazelles, medium-size antelopes that live in Africa and Asia, have done just that. Although it's doubtful any of the approximately 19 species of gazelles could win a race against a cheetah, some of them have gotten pretty good at convincing the powerful cat not to bother trying to take them down [source: National Geographic]. Gazelles may be a relatively silent and gentle bunch, but they are effective communicators nonetheless. From avoiding a chase to winning a mate, gazelles have a range of ways to communicate using only their bodies.
One of the most interesting examples of gazelle body language is stotting. Stotting, also called pronking, involves gazelles repeatedly jumping up into the air with all four legs held stiff and backs arched. They tend to stot before running away when they see an approaching predator, like the aforementioned speedy cheetah. At first glance, this behavior seems counterintuitive: Why waste precious time jumping up and down when you should be burning rubber?
Initially, biologists thought gazelles that stotted were altruistically warning the herd of an impending attack. While that may still be the case, another widely accepted theory is that they're also communicating with the predator. In a 1997 book called "The Handicap Principle," Amotz Zahavi suggested that some animals engage in costly signals as a way of reliably communicating their fitness level. The most famous example of this is the male peacock, whose extravagant tail requires extra energy to carry and display, but also earns him the most mating opportunities because it indicates how capable he is.
In the case of a stotting gazelle, it's as though the gazelle is saying, "Look at me cheetah, I'm so tough that I can afford to spend time jumping around because I'll still outrun you." The cheetah may assume that the gazelle is in good enough condition and that it's probably not worth its time.
Stotting is one of the rare instances when you'll find gazelles communicating with members of other species. Most of their communication is reserved for one another.
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.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- "Antelope." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2008. (Aug. 11, 2008)http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761573948/Antelope.html#s1
- Bergstrom, Carl T. "Honest Signaling Theory." University of Washington. Oct. 23, 2006. (Aug. 11, 2008)http://octavia.zoology.washington.edu/handicap/honest_intro_01.html
- "Gazelle." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2008. (Aug. 11, 2008)http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761562533/Gazelle.html
- "Grant's Gazelle." African Wildlife Foundation. (Aug. 11, 2008).http://www.awf.org/content/wildlife/detail/grantsgazelle
- "Grant's Gazelle." African Wildlife Foundation: Out to Africa. (Aug. 12, 2008)http://www.outtoafrica.nl/animals/enggrantsgazelle.html
- Huffman, Brent. "Gazella dorcas." Ultimate Ungulate. March 22, 2004. (Aug. 12, 2008)http://www.ultimateungulate.com/Artiodactyla/Gazella_dorcas.html
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- "Thomson's Gazelle." African Wildlife Federation. (Aug. 11, 2008)http://www.awf.org/content/wildlife/detail/1016/
- "Thomson's Gazelle." National Geographic. 2008. (Aug. 11, 2008)http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/gazelle.html