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Christina Ward, Zoo Atlanta Facebook

5 Fast Facts About Eastern Bongos

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Christina Ward, Zoo Atlanta Facebook

Last week, Zoo Atlanta’s Facebook page announced the new arrival of a baby Eastern Bongo. This is exciting (and adorable) news, but you might be asking, ‘what even is an Eastern Bongo?” mental_floss talked to Tammy Schmidt, the assistant curator of mammals at Zoo Atlanta, to find out more about these interesting creatures. 

1. There are two bongo subspecies. 

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There are two types of bongos: the western/lowland bongo (T. eurycerus) and the eastern/mountain bongo (T. eurycerus isaaci). Eastern bongos live in the mountainous areas of Africa, such as Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, while western bongos occupy a much larger range, stretching through the central and western parts of Africa. Schmidt explains that, side-by-side, you probably wouldn't be able to tell which is which, but if you look a little closer, the “anatomy is a little different.” The eastern males are actually 100 pounds heavier than their western counterparts and have somewhat brighter fur. 

2. Eastern bongos are endangered. 

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Western bongos are only "near threatened," but their eastern cousins are critically endangered. Mountain bongos are isolated in the mountains and suffer from dwindling numbers. There are more in captivity than in the wild, with less than 200 left roaming free in Africa.  

Unfortunately, predation and growing human populations are pushing the eastern bongo to extinction. “Africa is growing just like the United States, just like Europe, with roadways, family communities, and farming,” Schmidt says. On top of deforestation and increased pollution, humans are also preying on the bongos, which provide plenty of meat. 

In an effort to protect the vulnerable animals, shelters have been set up in various parts of Kenya. Facilities like Zoo Atlanta are also doing their part by participating in breeding programs. 

3. They’re the largest forest antelope in Africa.

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Bongos are pretty hefty animals. They can weigh anywhere from 500 to 900 pounds and grow horns that can be as long as 40 inches. 

Despite their formidable size, they can be pretty skittish. They're also crepuscular animals, meaning they're mostly out grazing between dusk and early morning. The darkness helps them hide from predators. 

“With that beautiful red, it’s hard to hide it, but once you get into the shade and the shadows of the forest—plus the disruption of the stripes they have—they will meld in a little better,” Schmidt explains. 

4. Eastern bongos are social animals.

Finding safety in numbers, the animals are non-territorial and often gather in groups of two to fifty. “50 is being pretty generous considering I just shared that there are less than 200 in the wild. [The herds are] probably much smaller than they were historically,” Schmidt notes. 

Bongo herds generally feature a group of females, juveniles, and one alpha male. Relatives of alpha males, including brothers and uncles, can also be found in the group, but they will often detach to find their own herds. 

“Typically, there is going to be one alpha animal that’s managing the group and primarily breeding some of the alpha females. But the groups contain all sexes and all ages,” Schmidt says.

5. Their unusual appearance aids their lifestyle.

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Both males and females have horns, but fighting is probably not their main function. The unusual horns are used for clearing brush out of the way when the animals are fleeing.  

“When you look at them they’re actually twisted slightly in the middle and backwards,” Schmidt says. “So when you think about battles between males and you think about an elk or a white tailed deer that we would see here in the U.S., they’re really more of a tool that’s upright and ready for action. Whereas the bongos, when you look at them and they’re tilted back, they seem like they’re not really utilized in any kind of battle. It’s typically only going to be a male that’s going to battle another male for territory or protection of a mom and kids.” 

In addition to their strange horns, the animals also sport vibrant reddish chestnut fur. The pigment comes off their fur easily and can stain trees or other brush when they walk past. This feature serves as a special calling card for other bongos in the area. Wandering males or juveniles separated from their mothers can easily find the herd by following the trail of red. Unfortunately, so can predators. 

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Animals
25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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