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.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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