10 Facts: Wildebeest

The well-known and loved Wildebeest is a fascinating and iconic species that roam the vast savannas of Africa. Renowned for their remarkable migration, there are a few other interesting facts about the Wildebeest that will make you love them even more. Let’s delve a little deeper into some of these facts.

What is in the name?

The scientific genus name for the Wildebeest is ConnochaetesThis is derived from the Greek words ‘kónnos” meaning “beard” and ‘khaítē’ which means “flowing hair” or “mane” which describes their physical appearance. The term Wildebeest derives from Dutch, where it directly translates into “wild beast”. This was the settler's first impression when they encountered them back in the 1700’s. You will often hear they are referred to as a Gnu, as this is a derivation of the name used by native Africans.

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The Origin of the Wildebeest

Fossils of the Blue Wildebeest have been found indicating that they evolved at least 2.5 million years ago. Through analysis of the mitochondrial DNA, it is believed that the Black Wildebeest diverged as a separate species around 1.5 million years later. Their unique and distinct features are the result of evolutionary adaptations to their environment over the years.

Different species and sub-species

The Wildebeest is divided into two species known as the Common/Blue Wildebeest and the Black Wildebeest. The Common/Blue Wildebeest is then further divided into subspecies, including the Blue Wildebeest, Western White-Bearded Wildebeest, the Nyasaland Wildebeest, Eastern White-Bearded Wildebeest, and the Cookson’s Wildebeest.

Distribution of the Wildebeest

Found across Southern and Eastern Africa, the two species of Wildebeest are found in two different habitats. The Common/Blue Wildebeest can be found in dense woodland and floodplain areas in Southern Africa as well as parts of Kenya and Tanzania, whereas the Black Wildebeest lives exclusively in South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini in open grasslands and the Karoo scrub. The differences in distribution are usually sufficient to prevent the two species from interbreeding in the wild.

The Birthing Season

The birthing season of the Wildebeest is a very synchronized event. After a gestation period of 8 months, about 80% of calves are born just short before the rainy season starts. This maximizes the chances of survival for the calves by overwhelming predators with a large number of calves at once. In addition to this, the calves are born at a time when grass is abundant for lactating mothers. About 8 000 calves are born daily at the peak of the birthing season!


Wildebeest are herbivores and primarily feed on grass and they are highly dependent on water, playing a very big role in their migratory patterns. They drink 9 to 12 liters of water every one to two days, and this need drives them on their journey of the Great Migration, seeking areas with sufficient water sources and grasslands.

Physical appearance

Their overall appearance is well adapted to survive the hard times of the migration and at the same time evade predators. Most of their body mass is concentrated in their upper body, supported by their long legs. This enables them to run in short bursts. In addition, their high shoulders, slanted back and lower hindquarters are believed to be highly efficient for traveling long distances at an easy canter.

Weighing in at 180 to 250 kilograms (390 to 770 lbs) and an average height of 135 to 150 centimeters (4 to 5 feet) the Blue/Common Wildebeest is the largest of its species. The slightly smaller lack wildebeest weighs in at 155 to 180 kilograms (340 to 395 lbs) and an average height of about 108 to 120 centimeters (3.5 to 4 feet).

Despite their bulky appearance, they are built for speed and endurance. Reaching a speed of up to 80km/h (50 mph) along with their muscular build and powerful limbs they are practiced at evading predators.

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Playing a big role in the Great Migration, the Wildebeest is known to be a driver in this annual event. More than 1.5 million Wildebeest migrate through an enormous loop, being the largest animal migration on earth. On the quest for fresh grass, they move in massive herds through predator-rich areas and cross through crocodile-infested rivers.

Not all Wildebeest migrate, and some stay put in the same area for long periods of time. Small herds of up to 10 females and their offspring will remain in the same area year-round. This is mostly found in National Parks that are fenced-in and the herds are unable to cross borders. 

Swarm Intelligence

Wildebeest are sociable animals and live in big herds, sometimes by the thousands. They mostly communicate through their sense of sight and smell and are also very vocal animals. By the use of grunts and moans, they keep the herd together when moving. They exhibit what we call “swarm intelligence” which is a form of collective learning and decision-making skills. This refers to the way the members make a decision, and how they interact with one another and the environment, eventually leading to intelligent group behavior.

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Collective noun

Although there are a few collective nouns for a group of Wildebeest, the most interesting one is Confusion of Wildebeest. This is believed to be because of the loud noise and the confusion that erupts during the migration season.

From their massive migratory herds to their unique individual appearance, now we know there are more to the Wildebeest than just being prey to the big cats.

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Till next time,


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