Blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)
|Also known as:||common wildebeest and brindled gnu|
|Size||Head-body length: 150 - 240 cm (2)|
Tail length: 60 - 100 cm (3)
Male weight: up to 290 kg (3)
Female weight: up to 260 kg (3)
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
A distinctive, high-shouldered antelope, with a long, broad muzzle and cow-like horns, the blue wildebeest is famous for forming vast migratory herds (4). The species gets its common name from the silvery-blue sheen to the coat, the base colour of which varies from greyish to brown. The forequarters bear vertical black stripes - the ‘brindled’ colouration that gives the species one of its alternative names - and the front of the face, the long tail, and the mane are also black (3) (5). The long beard may be black or white, depending on the subspecies (2). Both the male and female have unridged horns, which curve downward laterally before pointing upward and inward (6), and in older animals may have a knobby base (5).
Five subspecies of blue wildebeest are recognised: the western white-bearded wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus mearnsi), the eastern white-bearded wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus albojubatus), the Johnston’s or Nyassa wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus johnstoni), Cookson’s wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus cooksoni), and the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus taurinus). C. t. mearnsi, the smallest of these, with the shortest horns (4), is the subspecies which forms the famous large herds of the Serengeti-Masai Mara (7). The blue wildebeest can be distinguished from the black wildebeest (or white-tailed gnu), Connochaetes gnu, by its larger size, lighter colouration, and a black rather than white tail (4).
The blue wildebeest has a wide distribution from Kenya and Tanzania southwards, to Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, northern South Africa and southern Angola (1) (5), and has been introduced to the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe and to farms in Namibia (8). C. t. cooksoni has probably the most restricted range, being found only in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia (1) (5).
Generally inhabiting open short-grass plains, as well as Acacia savanna, open bushland and woodland in drier areas (1) (2), the blue wildebeest prefers habitats which are neither too dry nor too wet (9).
The blue wildebeest is a grazer, its broad mouth adapted to bulk feeding on short grass. However, its dependence on short grass, together with its need to drink at least every other day, limits the species to moist grassland and to areas within reach of water (4) (9), although interestingly it is also known to survive in waterless regions of the Kalahari by feeding on melons and water-storing roots and tubers (4). The need to follow seasonal grazing and water supplies leads the blue wildebeest to form some of the largest migratory herds of all antelopes, with those in the Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem of Kenya and Tanzania forming part of the world’s largest remaining aggregations of large land mammals (4). However, not all wildebeest migrate, with some remaining in the same area year-round, generally forming small herds of up to ten females plus immature offspring (2) (4). The females in these herds tend to establish dominance hierarchies and harass any outsiders who attempt to join. In contrast, the only stable associations in migratory herds are between a female and offspring. Depending on the environmental conditions, different blue wildebeest populations, and even the same population at different times, may show every variation between these social extremes (4).
The blue wildebeest has an unusually restricted breeding season. Around 80 to 90 percent of calves are born within a two to three week period, usually at the start of the rains, when conditions are most favourable (2) (4). This also helps to protect the calves by creating a glut for predators. The female blue wildebeest gives birth annually, to a single calf, after a gestation period of around eight months. The calf follows the female from the moment it can stand, usually within 15 minutes of birth, and is weaned by nine months (2). The young male is pushed out of the herd by territorial males after the first year, after which it joins a bachelor herd, which may also contain older and non-territorial males (2) (4). After reaching sexual maturity at three to four years old, the male becomes solitary and attempts to establish its own territory, which may be temporary in migratory populations, or may be continuously occupied and defended for years (2). Territorial competition between males typically involves ritualised displays, pushing with the horns, and the loud ‘ge-nu’ call that gives the wildebeest its other name, the gnu (2) (6). The lifespan of the blue wildebeest is around 20 years in the wild (3).
Although the blue wildebeest is thought to undergo natural periodic population declines due to environmental factors such as drought (2) (10), the species is also under threat from the spread of human settlement, livestock and agriculture, as well as poaching for meat (1) (3). If the number of blue wildebeest killed by humans increases as human populations increase, the species could face a permanent decline (10). However, perhaps the greatest threats are human activities that prevent the blue wildebeest migrating or accessing its seasonal ranges. These include fences, and the elimination of water sources as a result of deforestation and irrigation practices. The dependence of some migratory populations on seasonal access to unprotected areas, where the wildebeest are more vulnerable to poaching and habitat loss, could also result in smaller, resident populations that are confined within protected areas (1).
The blue wildebeest is still widespread and numerous, and occurs in many protected areas throughout its range, including the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, a World Heritage Site (1) (11). However, some populations and subspecies are of concern, particularly C. t. albojubatus, which is thought to have undergone large declines (1). In addition, even within many protected areas the blue wildebeest is already dependent on deliberate management and conservation policies for its survival (3).
The Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem may contain around 70 percent of the global population of blue wildebeest, meaning the future of the population here will have a significant impact on the species’ overall conservation status (1). As the dominant large herbivore in many of these areas, wildebeest have a major influence on the whole ecosystem (9). Monitoring and protection of this distinctive antelope may therefore be essential for the conservation of these ecosystems as a whole.
To learn more about the blue wildebeest and on conservation in Africa, see:
African Wildlife Foundation:
For futher information on the blue wildebeest, visit:
BBC Wildlife Finder:
Authenticated (03/09/09) by Dr David Mallon, Co-Chair, IUCN/SSC Antelope Specialist Group.
- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Herbivore: an animal that consumes only vegetable matter.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- Territorial: an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (November, 2008)
- Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
- Kingdon, J. (1997) The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press, London.
- Estes, R.D. (1992) The Behavior Guide To African Mammals: Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores, Primates. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
- Alden, P.C., Estes, R.D., Schlitter, D. and McBride, B. (1996) Collins Guide to African Wildlife. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
- Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
African Wildlife Foundation (November, 2008)
- Mallon, D. (2009) Pers. comm.
- Kingdon, J. (1988) East African Mammals: An Atlas of Evolution in Africa. Volume 3, Part D: Bovids. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Mduma, S.A.R., Sinclair, A.R.E. and Hilborn, R. (1999) Food regulates the Serengeti wildebeest: a 40-year record. Journal of Animal Ecology, 68(6): 1101 - 1122.
UNEP-WCMC: Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (November, 2008)