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Is It a Zebra? A Giraffe? No, It's an Okapi

Okapi
The okapi (Okapia johnstoni) has the head of a giraffe, the body of a horse and the stripes of a zebra. Tier Und Naturfotografie J und C/Getty Images

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Upon first seeing an okapi (pronounced oh-COP-ee), many people assume this beautiful and unusual animal is related to a zebra. And that's a really good guess, especially since it has the body of a horse — at about 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, and between 440 to 660 pounds (199 to 299 kilograms) — and its hindquarters are clad in reddish-brown and cream stripes.

In reality, however, the okapi's closest relative is the giraffe (it's even sometimes called a "forest giraffe"), and the two animals — aside from belonging to the same scientific genus, the Giraffoidea family — have several connections. First off, they both have long necks, cloven hooves and short, skin-covered horns. Next, their skulls are almost identical, except the okapi's is smaller. Finally, they each have a super-long, prehensile, flexible bluish tongue that's ideal for plucking leaves from trees and shrubs. And, thanks to that extra-long tongue, the okapi is one of the only mammals in the world that can lick its own ears!

"The okapi is the only living relative of the giraffe," explains Rick Schwartz, a global ambassador for California's San Diego Zoo, which has okapis at the zoo and at its Zoo Safari Park, in an email interview. "This species resides in the dense rainforest of Central Africa, so that is where the nickname 'forest giraffe' comes from. At first glance, they don't look exactly like a giraffe, but when you look at the head and face of the two species, you see many similarities, such as the large ears, the shape and look of the eyes, ossicones (small horns on the top of the head that are covered with skin) and long prehensile tongue."

Curious to know more about this enigmatic creature, which is only found in the dense rainforest of the northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Here are nine more factoids you might find interesting.

1. They Weren't Discovered Until the Early 1900s

Although native populations have long known of the okapi, the animal wasn't discovered by Western scientists until the early 1900s, according to the Rainforest Alliance. In fact, until just over a century ago, the Western world believed the okapi was a mythical beast, an "African unicorn." "To my knowledge," says Schwartz, "the okapi was once referred to as being as 'mythical as a unicorn,' a striped, donkey-like beast of the rainforest."

2. The Common Ancestor of the Okapi and Giraffe Lived About 16 Million Years Ago

This ancestor (known as Canthumeryx) had an elongated neck, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. After Canthumeryx, the family tree split into two branches, with the ancestors of the giraffe on one side and precursors to the okapi on the other. While the giraffe ancestors' necks lengthened over time, the animals on the okapi side developed shorter necks.

3. They Have Scent Glands on Their Feet

The scent glands on each foot leave behind a sticky, tar-like substance wherever they have walked, says Schwartz. "This substance has a unique scent for each individual — or a scent 'signature,' if you will," he adds. "Other okapis can easily smell the scent 'signature' of the okapi that left the scent. Okapis have a very good sense of smell and can probably differentiate between individuals."

4. They Have Thick, Oily Fur

The okapi's body is covered in dark reddish-brown fur that is thick and feels like velvet. It's also very oily, so water slides right off and helps to keep the animal dry on rainy days.

5. They're Herbivores

That means they eat only vegetation. Their diet? "Forty to 60 pounds (18 to 27 kilograms) of leaves, twigs and fruits each day as they browse through the rainforest," says Schwartz. The okapi will reach up into trees with their tongues, pull down a branch and rake off the leaves with their mouths as they let go of the branch. They also eat twigs, buds, fungi, fruits and other vegetation that can be found in the rainforest's undergrowth. Clay from riverbeds is important to their diet, as well, because it provides them with minerals and salt that they may not get from vegetation. As an aside: Just like a giraffe, the okapi has to spread its long legs to get close enough to the ground to get a drink of water.

6. They Typically Give Birth to One Baby at a Time

Birth comes after a gestation period of 14 to 16 months, with the young born in a nest on the ground. Calves are about 3 feet (80 centimeters) tall when born and weigh about 35 pounds (16 kilograms), and then they triple in size by the time they are 2 months old. While the calves are able to walk 30 minutes after they're born, they don't defecate until they are between 4 and 8 weeks old. This is a defensive maneuver: Without the smell of feces, it is harder for predators to track the vulnerable newborn. Okapis become mature at around 2 to 3 years old and live 20 to 30 years.

7. They Can Be Dangerous

"Like any wild animal, if they feel they need to defend themselves, they will," says Schwartz. "Okapis can deliver a kick as strong as a horse's kick — but in any direction, and with accuracy. In general, they tend to keep to themselves and do not seek out confrontations."

8. You Probably Won't Encounter One in the Wild

This is due to their very elusive nature and their dwindling population, says Schwartz. "However," he adds, "if you should come across one, it is best to slowly back up and give them their space."

9. Okapis Are Endangered

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the okapi as endangered because the rate of population decline is estimated to have exceeded 50 percent during the past 24 years. The population also is continuing to decrease, with only 25,000 believed to be alive in the wild today. "Their biggest threats are mining, oil and gas drilling, residential and commercial development, expanding agriculture and logging," says Schwartz. "Currently, regional governments have enacted laws to protect habitat and increase monitoring of the areas okapis inhabit."

The Okapi Conservation Project works in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo to protect the natural habitat of both the endangered okapi and the indigenous Mbuti pygmies living in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Designated as a World Heritage Site, the reserve is one of the most biologically diverse areas in Africa. Its model programs in sustainability and stewardship promote the viability of the region's biodiversity and survival of native species like the okapi.

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