Monday, 12 August 2013

Once "found ranging with the white-tailed gnu and with the ostrich."

Live quagga mare in London Zoo, 1870
The quagga (Equus quagga quagga) is an extinct subspecies of the plains zebra that lived in South Africa. It was long thought to be a distinct species, but recent genetic studies have shown it to be the southernmost subspecies of the plains zebra. It is considered particularly close to Burchell's zebra. Its name is derived from the plains zebra's call, which sounds like "kwa-ha-ha".




The quagga is believed to have been around 257 cm (8.43 ft) long and 125–135 cm (4.10–4.43 ft) tall at the shoulder. It was distinguished from other zebras by its limited pattern of primarily brown and white stripes, mainly on the front part of the body. The rear was brown and without stripes, and therefore more horse-like. The distribution of stripes varied considerably between individuals. Little is known about its behaviour but it may have gathered into herds of 30–50 individuals. Quaggas were said to be wild and lively, yet were also considered more docile than Burchell's zebra. They were once found in great numbers in the Karoo of the former Cape Province and the southern part of the former Orange Free State in South Africa.

Little is known about the behaviour of quaggas in the wild, and it is sometimes unclear what exact species of zebra is referred to in old reports. The only source that unequivocally describes the quagga in the Free State is that of the English military engineer and hunter Major Sir William Cornwallis Harris. His 1840 account reads as follows:

"The geographical range of the quagga does not appear to extend to the northward of the river Vaal. The animal was formerly extremely common within the colony; but, vanishing before the strides of civilisation, is now... occurs in interminable herds; and,  it is almost invariably to be found ranging with the white-tailed gnu and with the ostrich, for the society of which bird especially it evinces the most singular predilection. Moving slowly across the profile of the ocean-like horizon, uttering a shrill, barking neigh, of which its name forms a correct imitation, long files of quaggas continually remind the early traveller of a rival caravan on its march. Bands of many hundreds are thus frequently seen doing their migration from the dreary and desolate plains of some portion of the interior, which has formed their secluded abode, seeking for those more luxuriant pastures where, during the summer months, various herbs thrust forth their leaves and flowers to form a green carpet, spangled with hues the most brilliant and diversified."

The quagga was heavily hunted as it competed with domesticated animals for forage. While some individuals were taken to zoos in Europe, breeding programs were not successful. The last wild population lived in the Orange Free State, and the quagga was extinct in the wild by 1878. The last captive specimen died in Amsterdam on 12 August 1883. Only one quagga was ever photographed alive and only 23 skins are preserved today. In 1984, the quagga was the first extinct animal to have its DNA analysed, and the Quagga Project has tried to recreate it by selectively breeding plains zebras to resemble it.

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