7 Things You Might Not Know About Impalas

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Impalas have been the inspiration for cars and musicians, but the animal itself has never received much attention in popular culture—at least not in the way some like hedgehogs, raccoons, or otters have. Read on to learn seven facts about some of the most jumpy creatures on the African savanna (in more ways than one).

1. THEY CAN LEAP MORE THAN THREE TIMES THEIR HEIGHT.

image of an adult male impala leaping across some water
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According to National Geographic, impalas can leap up to 10 feet in the air and travel as far as 33 feet in a single bound—which, for an animal with an average height of 3 feet and length of around 4 feet, is a considerable distance. This agility makes it easy for impalas to maneuver over and around obstacles, which comes in handy when they need to escape predators.

2. THEY'RE KNOWN TO CRY WOLF.

image of a herd of impalas running alongside some zebras
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Three of the main prey animals on the southern African savanna (impalas, zebras, and wildebeests) can recognize one another's warning cries, according to researchers from the University of Minnesota. That works to everyone's advantage if a predator is close. If a zebra, for instance, sounds a warning call, then any nearby zebras, wildebeests, or impalas know to flee.

However, the study found that zebras were more likely to ignore warning calls from impalas, Popular Science reported. That makes sense, as zebras can weigh six times as much as impalas and make for hardier prey. Oddly, wildebeests were more likely to flee the area after hearing a cry from an impala than from another wildebeest. Researchers felt that could be because wildebeests often judged it was safer to move quickly and return in case of a false alarm than stay and risk attack. Impalas themselves, however, were skeptical of calls made by their own kind. According to researcher Meredith Palmer, it's because impalas are naturally anxious and tend to sound false alarms.

"If you're an impala and you know that other impala are probably responding to a predator but there's also a 25 percent chance that they are alarm calling at some waving grass, maybe you would give more weight to an alarm call from something like a zebra which perhaps is a little more discriminatory," Palmer told Popular Science.

3. THERE'S A LONGSTANDING—BUT UNSUBSTANTIATED—THEORY THAT THEY CAN DELAY GIVING BIRTH FOR UP TO A MONTH.

image of two adult female impalas looking after several impala calves
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Impalas in southern Africa are synchronous breeders, meaning they tend to mate and give birth around the same time each year. Impala breeding usually corresponds with the wet season—they usually mate in May, at the end of the wet season, and give birth in November, at the start of it. That predictable breeding schedule usually gives impala calves their best shot at survival. Impalas and other prey face more risk in the dry season, when dwindling food and water supplies force predators and prey toward the same geographic locations.

Rumor has it pregnant impalas can delay giving birth for up to a month if the wet season is late. That belief is probably a fallacy, said Shaun D'Araujo, a writer for Londolozi, a South African hospitality group.

According to D'Araujo, it's possible just as many impala calves are born before the start of the wet season as after it. But it's survival of the fittest on the savanna—calves born just a little too early may die before humans ever know they were there. And on top of that, natural birth for an impala born a month late would be impossible because the offspring would be too large, author Trevor Carnaby points out.

4. THEY'RE THE ONLY MEMBER OF THEIR GENUS.

image of impalas in a striking African sunset
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Impalas are one of a kind. They're the only member of the genus Aepyceros, which is included under the Bovidae family (along with buffalo, sheep, goats, and cows, to name a few). Within the impala species, scientifically known as Aepyceros melampus, there are two subspecies of impalas: the common impala, or Aepyceros melampus melampus, and the black-faced impala, or Aepyceros melampus petersi. These black-faced impalas are considerably rarer and are only found in a small subsection of southern Africa (specifically in Namibia and Angola).

5. THEY'RE A COMMON INGREDIENT IN SOUTH AFRICAN JERKY.

image of slices of South African biltong
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South African biltong is a dried and cured meat often compared to jerky. It's usually made from beef, but some purveyors still produce biltong made from game meats. Potential animals on the biltong menu include impalas, ostriches, and wildebeests.

6. THEY'RE MORE LIKELY TO ESCAPE PREDATORS IF THEY SLOW DOWN, BOB, AND WEAVE.

image of an impala running from a cheetah
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Running as fast as possible isn't the best move for impalas hoping to evade a predator, according to a study published in Nature in February 2018. Cheetahs, for example, have 20 percent more muscle power than impalas, and they can accelerate 37 percent faster. And with a top speed around 60 miles per hour (which is considerably faster than an impala's top speed), a cheetah can easily outstrip an impala in a straightforward race.

The best tactic, researchers say, is to move unpredictably. Animals moving at high speeds are less maneuverable, so impalas can shake off a predator if they change directions rapidly. According to Seeker, lower-speed chases almost always favor prey survival.

7. THEY FORM THEIR OWN CLIQUES.

image of a herd of impalas
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Although impalas tend to be fairly social for most of the year, they break off into subgroups during the rut, or mating season (generally from January to May, depending on the location). Impalas typically form three types of herds: all-female herds (often led by a territorial male who may be replaced multiple times), bachelor herds, and mixed-sex family herds led by territorial males.

All- or mostly-female herds are generally uniform and cohesive. Parent-child bonds dissolve after calves are weaned, so female herds often consist of many unrelated impalas. Female herds can be quite large, consisting of as many as 50 to 100 impalas. In Rwanda's Akagera National Park, the average female herd had 36 impalas.

Male impalas who fail to mate successfully form bachelor herds of five to 30 individuals. Bachelor herds are smaller than both family and female herds, and they tend to consist of what ecologist Deon Furstenburg described as "sexually mature, but socially immature rams."

Male impalas typically only become territorial for about four months of the year, during which time they'll jealously protect their harems of female impalas and calves. If one male impala loses a fight to another, they'll often be forced to surrender their herd and join a bachelor herd instead.

What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

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To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

8 Hair-Raising Facts About Black Cats

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No member of catkind is more maligned than the black cat. At best, they're bemoaned as lackluster photography subjects; at worst, they're seen as harbingers of really bad luck. But there's a lot to love about these furballs, as evidenced by the holidays in their honor—the ASPCA celebrates Black Cat Appreciation Day annually on August 17 and, across the pond, October 27 is National Black Cat Day—and the facts below.

1. IN SOME CULTURES, BLACK CATS ARE GOOD LUCK.

A black kitten stretching
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They may have a less-than-stellar reputation in some areas of the world, but there are plenty of places where black cats aren’t bad luck at all. If you’re a single woman in Japan, owning a black cat is said to increase your number of suitors; if you’re in Germany and one crosses your path from right to left, good things are on the horizon.

2. THEY'RE A SAILOR'S BEST FRIEND.

Not only were cats welcome aboard British vessels to hunt mice, but sailors generally thought a black cat in particular would bring good luck and ensure a safe return home. A few of these kitties have been enshrined in maritime history, like Tiddles, who traveled more than 30,000 miles during his time with the Royal Navy. (His favorite pastime was playing with the capstan’s bell-rope.)

3. THERE IS NO ONE BLACK CAT BREED.

The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) recognizes 22 different breeds that can have solid black coats—including the Norwegian Forest Cat, Japanese Bobtail, and Scottish Fold—but the Bombay breed is what most people picture: a copper-eyed, all-black shorthair. The resemblance to a "black panther" (more on those animals in a bit) is no coincidence. In the 1950s, a woman named Nikki Horner was so enamored with how panthers looked that she bred what we now refer to as the Bombay.

4. BLACK CATS ARE AS EASILY ADOPTED AS CATS OF OTHER COLORS.

Black cat facts.
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It’s common to think that black cats in shelters are the last in line to find their forever homes, but a recent survey from the ASPCA suggests otherwise. Although euthanasia numbers for black cats were some of the highest, their total number of adoptions was the highest of any hue as well. The vet who conducted the study argues that there may just simply be more black cats than other colors.

5. THEIR COATS CAN "RUST."

A black cat’s color all boils down to a genetic quirk. There are three variants of the black fur gene (solid black, brown, and cinnamon), and the hue works in conjunction with the pattern. If a cat has a solid black hue, but also the dominant tabby stripe gene, heavy exposure to the sun can make the eumelanin pigment in its fur break down to reveal its once-invisible stripes (another potential cause: nutritional deficiency). What was once a black cat is now a rusty brown cat.

6. THE GENE THAT CAUSES BLACK FUR MIGHT MAKE THESE FELINES RESISTANT TO DISEASE.

Even though their coloring is what gives them a bad reputation, these felines may be getting the last laugh after all. The mutation that causes a cat’s fur to be black is in the same genetic family as genes known to give humans resistance to diseases like HIV. Some scientists think the color of these cats may have less to do with camouflage and more to do with disease resistance. They’re hoping that as more cat genomes are mapped, we may get a step closer to curing HIV.

7. YOU CAN VISIT A CAT CAFE DEVOTED TO BLACK CATS.

Step through the doors of Nekobiyaka in Himeji, Japan and get ready for your wildest cat lady dreams to come true. Black cats are the stars of this café and visitors are invited to pet (but not pick up) these lithe felines. Each of Nekobiyaka’s identical-looking black cats wears a different colored bandana to resolve any catastrophic mix-ups.

8. THEY'RE DIFFICULT TO PHOTOGRAPH—BUT IT CAN BE DONE.

A black cat is photographed against a blue-gray background
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The modern-day conundrum black cat owners face isn’t bad luck, but bad lighting. In a world filled with people sharing photos of their pets on Instagram, black cats can end up looking like a dark blob in photos. One photographer’s advice? Minimalist backgrounds, so your subject can stand out, and angling them towards natural light sources (but keep them out of bright sunlight!). If you're snapping pics on your iPhone, tap on your cat's face, then use the sun icon to brighten up the photo.

BONUS: BLACK PANTHERS HAVE SPOTS.

Technically, there is no such thing as a black panther—it’s a term used for any big black cat. What we call black panthers are in fact jaguars or leopards and yes, they have spots, too. Their hair shafts produce too much melanin thanks to a mutation in their agouti genes, which are responsible for distributing pigment in an animal’s fur. Look carefully and you can see a panther’s spots as the sunlight hits them in just the right way.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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