One of the most iconic and abundant antelopes, it is thought that up to 1.5 million wildebeest call the Serengeti home. Mature adults can weigh up to 275Kg with curved horns up to a metre across, making herds a formidable prospect for predators. For this reason, lion, hyena and wild dogs frequently target the 500,000 calves born every year.
Because newly born calves are such an easy target, wildebeest have evolved to closely synchronise reproduction. It’s said that whole herds drop their young within the space of just two weeks, right at the beginning of the rainy season. Despite heavy losses, they overwhelm predators with more than they can eat, and this way at least some survive. It’s a tough strategy, but there’s safety in numbers.
Bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis)
Ears up to 13cm long give the bat-eared fox its self-explanatory name (and its slightly comical looks). Whilst spending much of its time searching for harvester termites, which make up 80-90% of its diet, the fox has evolved enormous ears for thermoregulation. Packed with blood vessels, when not hiding in burrows these help keep it radiate heat to keep cool in the hot Serengeti sun.
Leopard (Panthera pardus)
The iconic image of a Serengeti leopard is fast asleep in an acacia with a freshly killed gazelle draped over a nearby branch. Hunting is hot and tiring work, so leopards commonly rest before devouring their kill. If you’re not careful though, your kill can be stolen; especially by marauding hyena and lions. So for this reason, leopards of the Serengetti have evolved a behaviour of caching their kills in a tree while they sleep, keeping them safely out of reach (most of the time!).
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
The fastest land animal, the cheetah is bristling with adaptations to make it an incredibly effective, if a little delicate, predator. As well as excellent camouflage, semi-retractable claws and lightening speed a little known adaptation is its remarkable tail.
When running at full speed, cheetah use their long and weighty tail as a counterbalance. By shifting it from side to side it helps them direct their momentum to keep up with the evasive twists and turns of their prey. Next time you see a nature documentary, watch out for the tail!
Serval (Leptailurus serval)
Often overlooked in favour of bigger and faster predators, the lesser known serval has quietly become one of the Serengeti’s smartest cats. With much of the Serengeti covered savannah grassland, and the serval has adapted to become the perfect medium sized predator in this habitat. With the longest legs of any cat relative to its body, and a remarkably long neck, the serval hunts by peering over grass before pouncing on its unsuspecting small mammal prey.
Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber)
It can’t feel pain, is resistant to cancer and has become eusocial (living in cooperative groups). The more we learn about naked mole-rats, the stranger they become. Amongst this odd set of evolutionary traits are many adaptations that allow them to thrive in the harsh underground environment beneath East Africa. They are for example the only thermoconforming mammal, meaning they adopt the surrounding temperature as their own body temperature, saving energy. Similarly, eusociality has probably evolved to help them find and use sparse food sources efficiently.
Grant’s gazelle (Nanger granti)
The Serengeti is hot and dry for many months of the year. To respond to this, Grant’s gazelle has evolved to obtain most of their moisture requirements from the plants they eat. Amazingly this means they very rarely drink, allowing them to range out on the plains long after the rains end, giving them an edge over other gazelles. However, this resilience comes with a downside, with other species gone they are a popular dry season prey for cheetah and wild dogs.
Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus)
If there’s one species that has remained constant whilst others have come and gone, it’s the Nile Crocodile, the largest living reptile. As ambush predators they are able to wait for food to come to them, such as migrating wildebeest. Able to eat up to half their body weight in one sitting, they can also go months between meals. As enormous hulking reptiles, they may not look particularly well adapted, but they have truly stood the test of time.
The Serengeti is home to the greatest concentration of large mammals in the world. Spanning 30,000 square kilometres of Kenya and Tanzania, this is a true natural wonder, made all the more precious by wildlife declines elsewhere in Africa.
Yet for the wildlife that calls the Serengeti home it can be a harsh and unforgiving place. From ears aiding heat-loss to tails that help with hunting there’s a never ending arms race of adaptations to give species the edge. Here we delve under the surface to discover some surprising examples of evolution in action.