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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Field Note: The Impala Imperative

Published: March 11, 2022

By Mark Seth Lender

An impala's graceful, curving horns (Photo: (c) Mark Seth Lender)

Living on Earth's Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender provides additional insight on how impala markings help confound predators and buy the antelope crucial extra time to escape.

For strategic reasons predators attack from behind. Confounding which end is which gives impala a better chance since the predator (especially those that are young and inexperienced) may attack the wrong end, the end that sees it coming. In the case of impala there is another and very particular piece of camouflage.

On an impala buck, just at the crease of thigh and body is a round dark oval mark reminiscent of an eye. When impala dip their heads to graze and that dot is at the level of their true and actual eyes, that is exactly what it looks like. An impala’s eye in the wrong place. With luck the predator’s resulting disorientation becomes that sought-after hesitation. Which may prove the difference, between discovery (by prey of predator) and surprise (by predator of prey) and thus impose the critical divide, between capture and escape.

No defense is perfect. Impala deceptive camouflage is apparent in broad daylight. It may work better at dusk or as light diminishes, it may not work at all. And of course from above it is useless.

Leopards are powerful. Like all cats their size-to-strength ratio is enormous. At five or six meters from the trees, the impala of this story were within range of that completely silent leopard. Even if she could not make the back or neck of one of them in a single leap, she would definitely be there on the rebound. One-two! All in a blur. And all advantage would be hers.

As to defenses overall, what deceives young predators will inevitably fail as experience reveals the magician’s tricks. That said, high juvenile mortality rates mean there are far more young than adult predators. What the young lack in experience they make up in numbers. More of them are out there hunting making them as deadly in the collective as their more skilled though less numerous parents. Impala camouflage has its moment.

Why the impala did not anticipate the potential for danger overhead– from leopards of any age - is hard to comprehend. Perhaps the distance they maintained from the woods was sufficient. I don’t think so but I’ll never know. We left for Nairobi before the sun was up, just after I saw the dark running shape of that leopard.

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