8 Facts You Might Not Know About Gazelles

These speedy members of the antelope family are full of surprises.

A Thomson's gazelle surveys the savanna in Talek, Kenya.
A Thomson's gazelle surveys the savanna in Talek, Kenya.

Lars Johansson / EyeEm / Getty Images

Gazelles are famously fleet-footed members of the antelope family, living primarily in dry, open habitats like deserts and grasslands. They tend to gather in migratory or nomadic herds, remaining vigilant about predators as they roam the landscape to eat grasses and shrubs.

These generally tan-colored herbivores are fixtures of arid regions in Africa and Asia, yet they are also easily overlooked, often seeming like part of the scenery until they suddenly bolt at the sight of a cheetah. In honor of these elegant ungulates, some of which are struggling to coexist with our species, here are a few interesting things you may not know about gazelles.

1. Gazelles Don't Outrun Cheetahs – They Outmaneuver Them

Gazelle fleeing a cheetah in Kenya
Gazelles aren't as fast as cheetahs, but they still often find ways to escape.

Nick Dale / EyeEm / Getty Images

Gazelles are undeniably fast sprinters. A Thomson's gazelle can run up to 43 mph (70 kph), but some species can reach speeds as high as 60 mph (100 kph). That's twice as fast as the top speed on record by a human runner — Usain Bolt's 27 mph (43 kph) — but it still isn't always fast enough. It might help them escape an African lion or African wild dog, but cheetahs can sprint up to 75 mph (120 kph).

Rather than trying to outrun the world's fastest land animal, gazelles often focus on outmaneuvering and outlasting it. Forcing a cheetah to change directions can help undercut the cat's speed advantage, but it can also be risky if the chase is close. Perhaps a gazelle's greatest asset is endurance: Cheetahs can only sprint for about 0.28 miles (0.45 km), while gazelles can maintain high speeds for significantly longer. They just need to stay ahead long enough for the cheetah to run out of gas, although they might also try to end the chase even earlier with a very different tactic.

2. They May 'Pronk' to Impress Their Predators

A Grant's gazelle pronks in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.
A Grant's gazelle pronks in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.

Rick Wilhelmsen / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

When fleeing from a predator, gazelles often perform a distinctive stiff-legged vertical leap known as "pronking" or "stotting." This can seem strange, since these high bounces into the air make the gazelle more visible to predators, and also take up time and energy that could be dedicated to faster, more direct movement away from their pursuer.

Watch a young dama gazelle pronking in this clip from Smithsonian's National Zoo:

Scientists have considered several possible explanations for this, such as alerting other members of their herd to the danger or trying to avoid an ambush in tall grass. Research on Thomson's gazelles, however, suggests pronking is a form of communication from gazelles to their predators. It may be a behavior known in evolutionary biology as an "honest signal," in which a gazelle leaps to show off its own general fitness, potentially discouraging the predator by demonstrating how hard it will be to catch.

In a similar vein, pronking could be a way of signaling to the predator that it has been seen by the gazelle, and has therefore lost the element of surprise. Among young gazelles, though, pronking may also let the mother know her calf is in danger and needs protection.

3. They Can Shrink Their Hearts and Livers

A sand gazelle in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, United Arab Emirates.
A sand gazelle in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, United Arab Emirates.

Charles J. Sharp / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Gazelles are well-adapted to life in dry environments, but even they may struggle when food and water dwindle in severe droughts. Some species can adjust their physiology to cope — sand gazelles, for example, have evolved the ability to shrink oxygen-demanding organs like the heart and liver during lean times. This allows them to breathe less, which might reduce the amount of water lost to respiratory evaporation.

4. They're Linked to an Ancient Form of Poetry

The word "gazelle" may have come to English from French, but it likely originated from the Arabic word ghazaal, for deer or gazelles. That word shares its root syllables with the similar term ghazal, which roughly means "conversations with women," and these two variations may have both influenced the name for a form of Arabic poetry known as ghazal.

Dating back to the 6th century, the ghazal focuses on themes of romantic love and the pain of loss and separation. A ghazal involves sets of two-line verses, with the second line of each couplet ending with the same word or phrase, always preceded by the couplet's rhyming word. This often sad note echoing through a ghazal is said to arise from the frustrations of lost love, which links back to another translation of ghazaal as not just deer or gazelles in general, but specifically "the painful wail of a wounded deer."

5. Some Gazelles Honk When They're Nervous

dama gazelle standing under a tree
The critically endangered dama gazelle honks when nervous.

Kazzaz Photography / Getty Images

Like other antelopes, gazelles make a wide range of noises. These include snorts, grunts, bleats, and bellows, to name a few. The dama gazelle of north-central Africa, for one, makes an "endearing honk" when it sees something worrisome, according to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. The tone varies in length and pitch, and every individual sounds different.

6. Both Males and Females Have Horns

Most deer species limit antlers to males, but both sexes of gazelles can grow horns, although males' may be longer. A gazelle horn is a bony core encased in an outer layer featuring keratin and is often curved and ringed. While deer shed their antlers every year, gazelle horns are permanently attached.

7. Young Male Gazelles May Form 'Bachelor Herds'

A herd of Thomson's gazelles mingle in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.
A herd of Thomson's gazelles mingle in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.

Paul Souders / Getty Images

Gazelles are primarily social animals, often congregating in massive herds. Some gazelle gatherings contain hundreds of individuals, although many others are much smaller and segregated by sex.

Among Thomson's gazelles, females form migratory groups that enter the territory of males, especially those whose territories include more resources like food, water, and shade. Younger males gather in bachelor herds, which are excluded from areas claimed by territorial males. These bachelor herds are found mainly at the periphery of an area populated by gazelles and are thus often the first to be encountered by predators.

8. Several Gazelle Species Are Struggling

Many gazelle species face some degree of existential threat today, with many considered at least vulnerable if not endangered. Unsustainable hunting by humans has been a major factor in the decline of some species, along with habitat degradation and competition for food from livestock.

The dama gazelle, for one, is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which estimates only 100 to 250 individuals remain in the wild. Captive breeding programs may now be the species' best hope for survival.

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View Article Sources
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