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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.