Sunday, May 9, 2010


My mom really likes Quaggas for some reason. I'm not sure why, but bring up extinct animals and she pipes up with the illustrious Quagga. Most people have never heard of this beast, and if it weren't for my mom, I probably never would've heard of it either. So happy Mother's Day! Have a Quagga.

Quaggas were once native to what is now South Africa, and are called by their name after the sound that they, and other zebra species, are said to make. Only one Quagga was ever photographed alive, and that was this lady here. Due to over-hunting and planned extermination, (don't want them competing with the livestock!) Quaggas went extinct near the end of the 19th century. Only one hundred years earlier they filled the South African plains. An account from Thomas Pennant's History of Quadrupeds reads as follows:
"They keep in vast herds like the zebra, but usually in different tracts of the country, and never mix together... It is said to be fearless of the Hyena, and even to attack and pursue the fierce animal... They are used to the food which harsh dry pastures of Africa produce and are in no terror of wild beats, nor are subject to the epidemic distemper which destroys so many horses of the European offspring." That was published in 1793. By 1900, those vast herds were no more.
Interestingly, of all extinct animals, the DNA of the Quagga was the first to ever be analyzed. And it brought up some rather interesting results. In the past, scientists had believed them to be a separate species of zebra, due to their coat coloring and their skull size. The skull argument can be blown apart when one takes into consideration that many times taxidermists used skulls from horses and donkeys for the mounting, as it was cheaper to ship a hide than an entire Quagga skeleton. Anyway, genetic testing of samples from the world's mounted Quaggas broke the separate species theory all together, as the results proved that they are simply a subspecies of the plains zebra which posesses a different type of coloration. One argument about why Quaggas had less stripes in the first place relates to the tsetse fly. Some suggest that zebra stripes help to protect against attack by tsetse flies, which can not visualize stripes easily. Quaggas lived outside of the range of these flies and did not need such protections... or so one theory goes. 

 A project has been underway since 1987 to selectively breed Quaggas back into existence. It was begun before the subspecies revelation came out, and was certainly bolstered by such news. To begin the experiment, plains zebras were selected that exhibited lower stripe counts on their rumps and hind legs. In the past twenty years they have shown remarkable results, with each generation displaying fewer and fewer stripes, and even beginning to pick up brownish coloring. The picture here is of Henry, the most quagga-like foal born to date. Anyway, the project is going well, with hopes that soon herds of these proto-Quaggas can be released in preserves, (separate from zebras of course) so that visitors to South Africa can see them in a more natural habitat.

References! Whoa!
  • Parsons, Rochelle, Colleen Aldous-Mycock, Michael R. Perrin. "A Genetic Index for the Stripe-Pattern Reduction in the Zebra: the Quagga Project." South African Journal of Wildlife 37, no. 2 (October 2007).
  • Harley, Eric H., Michael H. Knight, Craig Lardner, Bernard Wooding, Michael Gregor. "The Quagga Project: Progress Over 20 Years of Selective Breeding." South African Journal of Wildlife 39, no. 2 (October 2009).
  • Pennant, Thomas. History of Quadrupeds. London: B&J White, 1793.
  • Drawing of "The Typical Quagga." Ridgeway, William. The Origin and Influence of the Thoroughbred Horse. Cambridge: University Press, 1905. (available at Google Books)
  • Image from "The Quagga Project." The Quagga Project South Africa.

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