11 Animals That Live in the Savanna

Lioness standing in the African savanna at sunset.

Anton Petrus / Getty Images

A savanna is a transitional biome with both grasslands and woodlands that is characterized by a very long dry season. Due to the lack of rain in the environment — only about four inches each year — forests aren’t able to fill in, but many residents have developed unique skills and characteristics to take advantage of the tall grasses and large, scattered trees. Here are some of the most interesting animals that have adapted to life in the savanna.

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Grant's Gazelle

Grant's Gazelle standing in grasses of the savanna.

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A type of antelope, Grant’s gazelles are common herbivores in the savanna biome. Predominantly grazers, gazelles eat shrubs and herbs, but also enjoy tall grass during the dry season and, occasionally, fruit. What is perhaps most incredible about gazelles, however, is their ability to go long periods of time — sometimes their entire life — without drinking any water.

Instead, gazelles can get sufficient water from the food they eat, making them an ideal resident of the dry savanna environment. What’s more, gazelles have large salivary glands that make it easier to eat their dry diet without the help of a reliable water source.

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Caracal

Caracal prowling in the savanna.

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Native to Africa, caracals are medium-sized wild cats that are at home in savannas as well as forests, scrub and acacia woodlands, marshy lowlands, and semi-deserts. Though primarily nocturnal, caracals have a low upper eyelid that shields their eyes from the harsh glare of the sun. And, like gazelles, caracals can go indefinitely without water, another trait that makes them well-suited to life in the savanna.

What’s more, the cat’s unique ear tufts aid their survival in the savanna by camouflaging the cats in tall grasses and helping them identify the exact location of their prey.

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African Pygmy Falcon

African pygmy falcon perched in a tree.

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These adorable hunters are the smallest raptors in Africa and max out just under 8 inches in height. Even with their small stature, pygmy falcons pack a punch; they are extremely agile and perch in high trees to better spot and target their prey. Pygmy falcons also help other residents of the savanna — most notably weaver birds — by sharing communal nests and reducing threats from predators like snakes and rodents. 

That said, pygmy falcons are survivors. When their preferred meal of insects, lizards, rodents, and small birds isn’t available, they will attack and kill weaver chicks in their communal nests.

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Cheetah

Cheetah hunting in the savanna.

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One of the more well-known savanna dwellers, cheetahs live in the grasslands and open woodlands of the eastern and southern Africa savanna. Not only does the cheetah’s coloring camouflage them in the savanna’s grasslands, their bodies are specifically designed for hunting. In fact, cheetahs have the ability to run up to 70 miles per hour, making them the fastest animal on Earth. 

The cats have even developed slightly curved and fully retractable claws that make it easier to grip the ground when sprinting after prey. This feature also makes it easier to sink their claws into prey when the chase is over.

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African Savanna Elephant

Group of African elephants in the wild.

Andrew Linscott / Getty Images 

Also known as the African bush elephant, the African savanna elephant is the largest subspecies of elephant — and the largest land mammal in the world. Savanna temperatures typically range between 68 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit, and the elephants’ large ears let them radiate extra heat. Likewise, elephants can use their trunks to suck up water and mist themselves to cool off.

The trunk’s strong muscles also make it possible to lift over 400 pounds, which comes in handy during meal time. Elephants usually eat about 350 pounds of vegetation per day and help maintain savannas by reducing tree densities for other animals.

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Lion

Lion sitting in the grass of the savanna.

 Dale Johnson / Getty Images

Chances are, lions are one of the first animals you picture when you think about the African savanna. Like many other animals in this ecosystem, a lion’s tan color lets it blend in with the surrounding environment. Retractable claws, similar to those of cheetahs, make it easier for lions to catch their prey, while their rough tongues help the predators get to the meat more efficiently. 

Lions have also evolved to survive the temperature conditions of their home by adjusting the thickness of their manes in periods of drought or high temperatures. Likewise, lions are generally nocturnal, which enables them to hunt during the evening, when it’s cooler.

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Plains Zebra

Four Burchell's zebras, a type of plains zebra, drinking water.

 Digital Vision. / Getty Images

The plains zebra is the most common type of zebra, and is at home in open, grassy plains and grassy woodlands. Because of the savanna’s dry season, zebras can migrate as far as 1,800 miles for food and water and they have developed a unique digestive tract that lets them consume lower quality grasses.  

Zebras are also well-adapted to temperatures in the savanna biome — their coats dissipate about 70% of their heat and act as natural sunscreen. And those famous stripes? The pattern makes it harder for predators to zero in on a single animal in the herd.

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Blue Wildebeest

Wildebeest herd running across the savanna.

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Also called gnus, blue wildebeests are members of the antelope family, though they more closely resemble cattle. As a keystone species of the plains and acacia savanna ecosystems, these herbivores play an important role in keeping grass low and otherwise maintaining the savanna ecosystem for other local animals. 

Among their own adaptations for savanna life, wildebeests have long tails to swat flies and dark, vertical stripes that help them hide at night. And, because they’re prey animals, wildebeests have adapted by birthing their calves in a three-week period to keep their numbers high and increase survival rates.

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Spotted Hyena

Spotted hyena standing in the savanna.

 PHOTOSTOCK-ISRAEL / Getty Images

Spotted hyenas, often referred to as laughing hyenas, are the most common large carnivore in Africa. As hunters and scavengers, hyenas use animal matter very efficiently, making it easier to compete for food. This is made possible in part by how large the hyena’s heart is in proportion to its body — accounting for almost 1% of its body weight. Because of this unique adaptation, hyenas have high endurance for the long chases required to hunt their prey.

Hyenas then cool off in watering holes and sleep in shallow pools and holes under bushes and scrub vegetation. This lets them take advantage of shade during hot days.

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White-Backed Vulture

White-backed vulture perched in a tree.

renATE photography / Getty Images 

Vultures play a vital role in maintaining the savanna by removing the remains of dead animals. The birds can scavenge on large animals, but their beaks aren’t adapted to tough skin, so they can only feed on animals with soft tissue. Still, they survive by eating food other animals can’t — the high acidity of their stomach protects them from food poisoning. 

Beyond those adaptations, vultures enjoy the safety of large, scattered trees in the savanna for roosting and nesting. They also urinate on their legs and feet to cool off and kill parasites and bacteria that would otherwise threaten their health.

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Giraffe

Giraffe standing in the savanna.

Anton Petrus / Getty Images 

The giraffe’s long neck and sleepy eyes make it one of the most beloved creatures in the savanna. While their long necks help them reach high branches and leaves, giraffes also have 18-inch long, prehensile tongues that are the strongest of any animal. The tongue is dark colored (to protect it from sun) and covered with a thick, glue-like saliva that protects it from thorns and sticks. This lets them eat foods that other animals can’t consume — again, reducing competition. 

Finally, like many animals in the savanna, giraffes get moisture from dew and plants, which allows them to survive weeks without water.

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