On June 2, the global conservation community celebrates International Ungulate Day. As a group, ungulates represent some of our most iconic wildlife, our most well-known farmyard friends, and some of the most secretive and mysterious large mammals on earth. Some ungulates are famous for coming back from the brink of extinction, while others currently teeter on the edge of being lost forever. At Lee Richardson Zoo, we have ungulates that are wild, wonderful and even weird.
First of all, what is an ungulate? Based on its Latin roots, the word “ungulate” translates very simply as “provided with a hoof.” A hoof is, at its most basic, a modified toenail, just like a claw or nail. What makes a hoof different from either of these is the fact that a hoof is the main point of contact between an ungulate and the ground, and in many cases, bears the entire weight of the animal. This helps explain why the broad, modified toenails of a rhino look very different from the quintessential hoof of a horse, and yet biologists refer to both as ungulates. In both animals, the toenails are modified to be the main point of contact between the animal and the ground.
Biologists currently recognize over 400 species of ungulates around the world. At the zoo, we showcase 13 species of incredible ungulates. Africa is represented by the black rhino, reticulated giraffe and addax. Asia is home to the banteng, Chinese goral, Sichuan takin, Karakul sheep, Bactrian camel and Asian wild horse. North America is proudly represented by the American bison, elk and pronghorn, and the alpaca hails from South America. In preparation for International Ungulate Day, here is an amazing fact about each of our ungulate species.
• The black rhino can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds, but despite its large size is capable of running up to 35 mph. The average speed of a racehorse in the Kentucky Derby is 37 mph.
• The reticulated giraffe produces 11 kinds of aromatic chemicals in its skin, which not only gives giraffes their unique smell, but is also thought to help repel pests.
• The addax can survive its entire lifetime without ever drinking water, obtaining all the moisture it needs from the plants it eats.
• The banteng is the first endangered species to have embryos carried by surrogate domestic cows survive and live to adulthood, a technique that may save it from extinction.
• The Chinese goral is superbly adapted to climbing and spends its life in rocky, inaccessible mountain ranges across China, India and Thailand.
• The Sichuan takin can be as large as 800 pounds, but remains one of the most mysterious ungulates in the world. The takin’s woolly, golden hair is thought by some to be the inspiration for the mythical “Golden Fleece” of Greek legend.
• Karakul sheep are able to endure incredibly harsh living conditions due to their ability to store large quantities of fat in their tails, which they will use for energy when foraging conditions are poor.
• The Bactrian camel is able to go months at a time without drinking water, if necessary. They also can eat snow and ice or even drink saltwater to survive.
• The Asian wild horse is called the takhi in its native Mongolia, a word that means “spirit” or “holy.” It is a symbol of Mongolia’s national heritage.
• The American bison is the largest living land mammal in the Americas, reaching over 2,000 pounds in a mature male. It is the national mammal of the United States.
• Elk are responsible for some of the most flashy courtship rituals in North America, with males engaging in spectacular shows of strength and combat to win females. The call of a male elk, known as bugling, can be heard up to a mile away.
• The pronghorn may superficially resemble deer or antelope, but its closest living relative is actually the giraffe.
• The alpaca produces a silky fleece that naturally comes in 52 colors, is hypoallergenic and is flame resistant.
The next time you visit the zoo, see if you can find all 13 of our distinct ungulate species. Stop by a rhino encounter or a giraffe encounter to get up close and personal with two of the planet’s most iconic ungulates. We hope that you’ll join us in celebrating ungulates not just on International Ungulate Day, but year-round!
Sarah Colman is general curator at Lee Richardson Zoo.