Spiral horned Kudu antelope
Some Threatened

Spiral-horned Antelope

  • CLASS: Mammalia (Mamals)
  • ORDER: Artiodactyla
  • FAMILY: Bovidae
  • GENERA: Ammelaphus, Strepsiceros, and Taurotragus
  • SPECIES: 8

ABOUT

Greater kudu male displaying large, cork-screw horns
Theodore Roosevelt once described greater kudu as the handsomest of game animals. Greater kudu bulls are much larger than the cows, outweighing them by up to 220 pounds (100 kilograms).

Built-in corkscrews: If an animal is called a spiral-horned antelope, you'd better believe it’s going to have a set of spiraling horns on its head! Kudu and eland fit this category. The bulls (males) have these impressive hood ornaments. In the eland species, the cows (females) have them, too. 

So, how do the horns grow in a spiral? The twisting is a result of a growth pulse. The horn material grows faster and thinner at certain times, and then thicker and slower at other times. An animal’s genes control growth pulses.

A pair of Giant Eland in profile
The giant eland is also known as the Lord Derby's eland. The 13th Earl of Derby had a large, private zoo on the grounds of his home in England during the early 19th century.

Spiral-horned antelope bulls tend to be heavier and darker than the cows. In eland, the bulls' horns are always heavier and longer than the cows' and often have more spirals. The spirals help the bulls lock horns with each other when engaged in fights over cows. As its name suggests, the giant eland is the world's largest antelope species.

Greater or Cape kudu bulls have the longest horns. From tip to tip, the horns can grow up to 28 inches (71 centimeters) long. But if you were to straighten out the spirals, the horns would be up to 35 inches (89.5 centimeters) long.

Lesser kudu male standing in front of females.
Lesser kudu are great jumpers and can leap over obstacles up to 8 feet (2.5 meters) high.

Kudu have a sleek, brownish gray coat with vertical white stripes on the body. These help make them hard to find in the dappled sunlight coming through trees. Lesser kudu also have white chevrons between their eyes and white patches on their neck. The cows and calves are redder in color, which gives them better camouflage in their woodland habitat.

Patterson eland male looking at the camera with two females in front of him.
Both male and female eland, like these Patterson eland, have horns.

Eland are light brown but may turn gray with age. Thin, vertical white stripes on the side are barely visible. Both bulls and cows have dewlaps, although these are much larger on the bulls.

Antelope are popular prey for Africa’s large carnivores. If danger approaches, kudu and eland may freeze, run, or jump away, depending on the circumstance. Bulls are often lost to lions, cows to spotted hyenas. Leopards, cheetahs, and African wild dogs prey on subadults and calves. In some parts of Africa, only half of spiral-horned youngsters live past six months. It’s a tough life out there!

HABITAT AND DIET

The six spiral-horned antelope species live in areas of Africa below the Sahara Desert. They are able to eat a variety of food, depending on what's available, unlike mammals with more specialized diets. Greater kudu are found in woodland and hilly areas of eastern, central, and southern Africa. Other kudu species live in thicket vegetation, dry woodlands, or savannas in eastern and southern Africa. Common and giant eland live in savanna and woodland habitats of southern, central, and eastern Africa. 

Common eland
Common eland are found in southern, central, and eastern Africa, in savanna and woodland habitats. 

In general, these antelope spend their day foraging, resting to ruminate, moving to another area, and standing alert. They seek cover during the heat of day and groom themselves in the late afternoon. Giant eland are more active at night.

As browsers, the muzzle of eland and kudu species is more slender and narrow than that of their grass-eating relatives. They can pick out high-quality foods such as fruits, seedpods, flowers, leaves, and bark. Spiral-horned antelope have small, low-crowned teeth. Their digestive systems don't process fibrous food, such as grass, as well as their cattle relatives. When eating, they use their massive horns to break off branches to reach tasty leaves. Giant eland bulls break branches to provide food for the cows and calves! The horns are also handy for digging up thick-leafed plants, melons, bulbs, roots, and onions.

At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, our eland and kudu eat high-fiber copper fortified pellet, and Bermuda and Sudan hay. They get folivore biscuits as training treats.

FAMILY LIFE

Common kudu male rubs up against the side of a female
Lesser kudu are classified as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

As most eland and kudu live in areas with thick vegetation, they form small herds. Greater kudu herds consist of 3 to 10 cows and their young. Bulls are usually solitary or live in loose all-male groups except during the breeding season. Lesser kudu are not as social as greater kudu, usually living alone or in pairs, and are more active at night. Eland are social animals that live in herds of 25 to 70 animals.

Spiral-horned antelope are quiet most of the time. When alarmed, they make a sharp barking sound. Greater kudu win the prize for the loudest alarm bark in the African antelope category! But during courtship, adult males whine, grunt, knee-click, bleat, or make gasping sounds—anything to impress the ladies! Mature males may spar with each other for breeding rights by pushing and twisting and interlocking their horns.

These antelope also use vegetation to hide their newborn calves during the day. The cow tucks her single newborn away and visits it for nursing, which keeps the calf out of sight from predators. It is called a tucker baby. A tucker baby only comes of out hiding when it hears its mother call, letting the baby know it’s time to eat. Every tucker baby knows the sound of its own mother's call. 

Lesser kudu female and calf.
Kudu have a sleek brownish-gray coat with vertical white stripes, making them hard to spot in dappled sunlight coming through the trees of their habitat.

Kudu and eland calves are weaned at around six months old. Male offspring stay with the mother for up to two years. They then live with other young males for the next two to three years and become solitary when mature, at four to five years.

Giant eland calf laying down on dirt ground against rock.
The growth rate for a giant eland is quick, due to its mother's rich milk.

 

AT THE ZOO

The San Diego Zoo obtained its first spiral-horned antelope, some eland, from the St. Louis Zoo in 1941, and greater kudu in trade from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago in 1946. From there, our collection has grown.

Today, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has herds of both common and Cape or greater eland in its large South Africa field exhibit. Our greater kudu herd lives in the Central Africa field exhibit. All can be viewed from the popular Africa Tram tour or more closely on a Caravan Safari tour.

CONSERVATION

Eland are raised like domesticated cattle in parts of Africa for their hide, milk, and meat. In other parts of Africa, both eland and kudu are hunted in an unsustainable manner for their meat. Some hunters kill the animals just to take their spiral horns as trophies. Lesser kudu Tragelaphus imberbis are classified as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.

Save Wildlife. Help us keep this and other species from disappearing forever.

LIFE SPAN

7 to 20 years, depending on species

Age of maturity: 6 months to 2 years for females, 5 years for males

YOUNG

Gestation 7.5 to 9 months, depending on species

Number of young at birth: 1

Weight at birth: 9 to 66 pounds (4.1 tp 30 kilograms), depending on species

Age of maturity: 6 months to 2 years for females, 5 years for males

SIZE

Length: Longest - giant eland Taurotragus derbianus males, up to 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) long; shortest - southern lesser kudu Ammelaphus australis males, 4.9 to 5.5 feet (1.5 to 1.8 meters) long

Height: Tallest - giant eland males, 4.9 to 5.8 feet tall at shoulder; shortest - southern lesser kudu males, 3.2 to 3.6 feet (1 to 1.1 meter) tall at shoulder

Horn length: Longest - greater kudu, up to 28 inches from tip to tip and 35 inches (89.5 centimeters) straight-line horn length

Weight: Heaviest - giant eland, 970 to 2,094 pounds (440 to 950 kilograms); lightest - bushbuck Tragelaphus scriptus females, 90 pounds (41 kilograms)

FUN FACTS

Young common eland can leap over a 10-foot-tall (3 meter) obstacle from a standing position.

Eland can survive up to a month without fresh water.

DISCOVER WILDLIFE

More Animals & Plants from San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park