Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Body length: 5 to 7.7 feet (1.5 to 2.3 meters), depending on species
Shoulder height: 18 to 35 inches (45 to 90 centimeters), depending on species
Weight: 220 to 460 pounds (100 to 210 kilograms)
Lifespan: 20 years
Gestation: 8 to 10 months
Number of young at birth: 1
Weight at birth: 22 to 30 pounds (10 to 13 kilograms)
Age of maturity: 1.5 to 2 years
Conservation status: scimitar-horned oryx Oryx dammah is believed to be extinct in the wild; Arabian oryx Oryx leucoryx is endangered.
• Oryx have an unusual circulation system in their heads to
cool their blood. This is very helpful when you live in the desert!
• Oryx can sense rainfall far away and will travel up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) to feed on freshly sprouted vegetation.
• Beisa oryx, fringe-eared oryx, and gemsbok are all members of the same genus and species, Oryx gazella. They are genetically similar to one another and can interbreed successfully. However, because they are geographically separated by long distances, this does not happen naturally in the wild.
• Scimitar-horned oryx are all but extinct in the wild, yet they are one of the most common antelope species in zoos!
Animal Bytes: Oryx
Oryx are strikingly beautiful antelope with long, straight, and slender horns. These horns, carried by both males and females, give the oryx their nickname of "spear antelope." Oryx move in small mixed groups or large herds of up to 100 or more, searching for water and food. The herds move to different areas as the seasons change. It is generally the female, or cow, that leads the search for water and food, with the lead or alpha male bringing up the rear. Because of their dry habitat, food can be scarce, so the males follow to protect their harem herd rather than trying to defend a large food range or territory.
Oryx can breed at any time of the year. Females generally give birth to one calf. Like all hoofed animals, the young are able to get up and follow their mothers when they are just one hour old! Calves can feed on their own after four months, staying with the parent herd but no longer remaining with their mothers. Oryx reach maturity when they are about two years old.
Extinct—but not forever: Arabian oryx
The scientific name for the Arabian oryx, Oryx leucoryx, means "white oryx" and it is a great description of these beautiful antelope. This is the most highly specialized of the oryx for living in true desert extremes. Their light color reflects the desert heat and sunlight, and they can erect their hair on cold winter mornings to capture warmth to hold in their thick undercoats. Their legs also darken in the winter to absorb more of the sun's heat.
Sadly, this antelope of the Arabian Peninsula and Sinai Desert became extinct in the wild by the late 1960s, mostly due to hunters with high-powered rifles. In an effort to help save these animals, nine Arabian oryx from private collections in Oman, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, as well as from the London Zoo, were moved to the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona. These nine oryx became known as the World Herd. A second breeding group of three oryx, from a zoo in Saudi Arabia, was started at the Los Angeles Zoo, and in the 1970s animals from both of these herds were sent to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. As of 2012, 359 Arabian oryx have been born at the Park! In one of the great success stories of conservation, Arabian oryx have been returned to Oman and Jordan for reintroduction in their native range.
Horns or swords? Scimitar-horned oryx
The scimitar-horned oryx Oryx dammah gets its common name from the shape of its horns: they look like long, curved Arabian swords called scimitars. Scimitar-horned oryx are able to go weeks or months without water in extreme heat, similar to the gemsbok Oryx gazella gazella. They are able to cool the blood flowing to their brains through the capillaries in their noses as they breathe. These animals once ranged across North Africa but are believed to be extinct in the wild and currently live only in zoos. The good news for the future of these animals is that there are several successful breeding herds in zoos. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park and San Diego Zoo have had over 500 scimitar-horned oryx births, a world record! Perhaps these animals can be reintroduced to the wild one day.
The importance of being scientific: Gembsok
Gemsbok (pronounced "JEMS baak") is a name for many animals. Like the word "panther," which can mean a Florida mountain lion, a black leopard, or a black jaguar, the name "gemsbok" is used in Africa to refer to the oryx. In Germany, gemsbok is the common name for the chamois Rupicapra sp., which is related to the goral, serow, and mountain goat. Having a scientific name as well as a common name helps people around the world know which animal they're talking about!
Gemsbok Oryx gazella can be found on dry steppes or savannas and on flat or hilly country in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. They usually live in herds of 30 to 40 individuals, but when there are large areas of fresh vegetation, they can form megaherds of several hundred individuals. If they are threatened, gemsbok display a unique behavior: they stand sideways to appear larger, with their heads thrown over their shoulders. If this fails to intimidate the enemy, gembok will use their horns to defend or attack if necessary. Gemsbok horns are usually 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 centimeters) long but the record length is 4 feet (1.2 meters)!
Gemsbok cousins: Beisa oryx and fringe-eared oryx
Gemsbok have two closely related oryx: the beisa oryx Oryx gazella beisa is found in the large arid areas of Somalia and eastern Africa; the closely related fringe-eared oryx Oryx gazella callotis is found in Kenya. They both are smaller and lighter than their South African cousins, the gemsbok. These oryx can tolerate periods of extreme heat by raising their body temperature to 116 degrees Fahrenheit (47 degrees Celsius), causing heat to leave their bodies for the surrounding cooler air and not losing moisture through sweating or evaporation. When it gets too hot, they dig shallow holes for resting and cooling down.