Wondernose: Which of the antelopes spends most of its time in water?

by Rebecca Martin | Jul 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Lechwe herd
Lechwe herd. Photo © iStock.

Maybe this question comes as a surprise to you, Wondernose. When you think of antelope, you picture fleet-footed, horned mammals racing across Africa’s dry savannahs. That picture is correct for many antelope. But our mystery animal is never seen far from water and will often stand in shallow water all day, feeding on swamp plants. Some of these antelope will even lie down to rest in shallow water! I suppose that feels good during hot weather.

One downside of the water-dwelling habit is the danger of crocodiles. Like most antelope, this one is not very big; at most, it stands 40 inches (1m) high at the shoulders. So, yes, a crocodile can catch and eat one of these antelope.
Deep water won’t stop one of these antelope if it’s being chased by a wild beast. Our mystery animal is a strong swimmer. It can even swim underwater!

No other antelope is noisier than this one. So you’re surprised again, Wondernose? You thought antelope are like deer, having little to say. Well, once our mystery antelope becomes agitated, it will make an almost continuous noise which has been described as “croaking grunts.”

If you know anything about Africa’s climate, Wondernose, you realize there won’t be plenty of water year-round for these water-loving beasts. It’s more a “feast or famine” situation. From November to March there’s lots of rain. The river flats become flooded. During that time our antelope practically live in the water.

Then in June and July when the floods go down, the antelope have a time of rich grazing. Hundreds of square miles of lush grasses emerge from beneath the floods. Then these antelope gorge themselves. They know only too well that the dry times will return when the flats become brown and sere.

I haven’t been doing very much to help you guess our antelope’s name, Wondernose. That’s because I doubt you’d be able to guess it. Have you ever heard of lechwe? That’s the answer to our riddle. The mature lechwe ram’s most striking feature is its long, slender, lyre-shaped horns. Only the males have horns.

There are several subspecies of lechwe. The red lechwe has reddish tawny hair with some white on the belly and legs. Its horns have a double curvature. In the swamps of the Nile River is a variety called the Nile lechwe. These are very handsome; the females and young are chestnut-colored while the older males are dark brown. The best-known species is the Kafue Flats lechwe, found in the vast marshes of the Zambesi River basin.

The lechwe have many enemies, including hyenas, lions, and, of course, crocodiles. Pythons and eagles like to eat the lechwe lambs. Another danger for the young is that they are often drowned when a herd stampedes in fright. Fewer than half of lechwe lambs grow to adulthood.

Two other antelope are often mistaken for lechwe—the waterbuck and the kob. It’s no wonder because both of these also have water-dwelling habits. In fact, all three kinds of antelope may live in the same territory. But they can co-exist because they have different preferences in grazing. Lechwe prefer young grasses such as the shoots emerging after floods. Kobs and waterbucks, on the other hand, do their main grazing on more mature grasses.

You’d think with a name like waterbuck, those antelope would be the most water-loving of the three kinds mentioned. But that’s not the case. On the whole, waterbucks spend more time on dry ground than either the kob or the lechwe. One species, known as the common waterbuck, has a very distinctive feature, a white ring on the rump all around the tail.

Waterbucks are extremely territorial. Each male will claim a territory of up to a square mile—always with water frontage. The older a male is, the longer his river frontage will be. He will jealously guard his territory by fighting with any waterbuck that strays in. Females also have their own territories, but they don’t bother defending them.

When thinking of semi-aquatic antelope, there’s one other variety that comes to mind—the reed buck. Again, there are a number of species, but they all like to live in the reeds near water. Reed bucks are smaller than the lechwe, waterbuck, and kob. Another main difference is where a threatened reed buck will go for protection. It will flee into the dry brush—whereas the lechwe, kob, and waterbuck will head for the water whenever there’s danger.

Bohor reedbuck lying in water
Bohor reedbuck. Photo © Dreamstime.com.

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