11 Animals That Live in the Savanna

Lioness standing in the African savanna at sunset

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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—trees are sparse. The animals of the savanna have developed unique skills and characteristics to take advantage of the tall grasses and limited forest.

From the famous cheetahs and elephants to the lesser-known pygmy falcon, 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 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 eight 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 sometimes turn on their weaver companions. 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 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. Able to run up to 70 mph, the cheetah is 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 walking with mountains in background

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Also known as the African bush elephant, the African savanna elephant is the largest subspecies of elephant and, in fact, 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 sitting in the grass of the savanna

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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 drinking water

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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. 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 toward camera

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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 grassy savanna


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

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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 standing in the savanna

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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, gluelike 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.

How Have Animals Adapted to Life in the Savanna?

Life in the savanna is especially tough because of the lack of rain and forests that would otherwise provide ample shelter from the heat, plus more hiding spaces and food diversity. Instead, animals in the savanna face fierce competition and must find crafty ways to get water and stay cool. Here are some examples of adaptations that help these animals survive in the harsh environment.

  • Many savanna dwellers can go long periods without water. They stay hydrated by eating dewy plants or with special salivary glands that help them digest dry foods.
  • Nocturnality helps animals in the savanna avoid the heat of the day. Hunting at night also helps conceal them from predators.
  • Beige is a common color in the savanna. Many animals are this color to camouflage with the environment. Some have vertical stripes, which blend in with the grasses and make it difficult for predators to zero in on one individual. The caracal even has ear tufts that look like tall grass.
  • They're able to cool themselves with big ears that radiate heat (i.e., elephants) or by urinating on themselves (like the white-backed vulture).
  • Savanna animals avoid competition by occupying very specific food niches—some eat only animals with soft tissue, others have long necks (ehem, you know which ones) that help them access food high off the ground. This is called niche partitioning.
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