I first discovered the Okapi while playing Zoo Tycoon when I was a kid. In Zoo Tycoon you unlock animals by conducting research. Most of the animals you unlock are pretty standard animals, but a few are fake (I’m pretty sure you can unlock a yeti at some point). So when I first got the okapi, I thought it was another made up animal. I’d never heard of it, and it looked like a bizarre cross between a zebra and a giraffe. See:

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It turns out okapis do exist, and I like them a lot. Even though they have a striped pattern that looks zebra-like, the okapi is not an equid, and instead is related to the giraffe. In fact, the okapi and the giraffe are the only two surviving members of the Giraffidae family. Okapis live in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in central Africa. That’s why the okapi has a much shorter neck than its giraffe cousins; imagine trying to navigate through a thick forest with a ridiculously long neck.

One thing the okapi does have in common with the giraffe is a long, prehensile tongue. The okapis use their tongues for grasping leaves from trees, and also for grooming. This tongue is so long that okapis can use it to groom their entire faces, including the insides and outsides of their ears. And its not like the okapi’s face is squished or short or anything. Just imagine how long that tongue would have to be. Then picture having to keep that in your mouth. Now you have new respect for the okapi and what it has in its mouth every day.

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A picture displaying the comically large tongue of the okapi

There are two theories as to why okapis have those strange zebra-like stripes. One is that they help them camouflage in the dark rainforest, and another is that they help baby okapi follow their mothers. Likely, its a bit of both. The okapi’s coat has a thick, velvety texture, and is oily to keep the okapi dry when it rains. The okapi is about 1.5m at the shoulder, and those large ears are extra sensitive, provide a little bit of protection against predators.

Okapis are generally solitary animals, except for mothers with calves. They generally travel through the forest on okapi-made paths, and mark their territories in a rather interesting way. Males urinate to announce that a territory belongs to them, but all okapis mark their passage via scent glands on their feet. These produce a substance that resembles tar. So yeah, okapis ooze tar from their feet. Pretty weird.

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An okapi with her calf

The first few months of an okapi’s life are a bit unusual for an ungulate (hoofed animal). Most of the time ungulates live in herds, and the young must be on their feet within hours of birth to keep up with the herd. This communal living gives protection to the calves from predators. Okapis, however, are solitary, and so cannot get protection for their young from a herd. So they have developed a different strategy for protecting their calves.

For the first few days of life, young okapis follow their mothers around, until she picks a suitable place to make a nest. There mother and calf spend the next two months almost entirely inside this nest. This not only helps hide the calf but also lets it grow rapidly, as the calf spends little energy while in the nest. At this stage of life the calf doesn’t nurse very often, and doesn’t defecate. Can you imagine? Not having a bowel movement for two months doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. But its helps hide the calf, as predators cannot pick up the scent of feces that aren’t there.

Okapis are shy and mysterious creatures, and we don’t know a whole lot about them. Most of what we do know comes from those that live in captivity. But there’s no doubt that these strange looking but beautiful animals are interesting, and definitely worth studying.

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