Living on Earth: Field Note: The Impala Imperative

The gracefully curved horns of an impala (Photo: (c) Mark Seth Lender)

Living on Earth Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender provides additional insight into how impala markings help confuse predators and give the antelope crucial extra time to escape.

Predators attack from behind for strategic reasons. Mixing up which end that is gives Impala a better chance as the predator (especially the young and inexperienced ones) can attack the wrong end, the end it sees coming. In the case of impalas, there is another and very special camouflage.

On a buck impala, right at the fold of the thigh and body, there is a round dark oval resembling an eye. When impalas tilt their heads to graze and this point is at the level of their true and actual eyes, it looks exactly like this. An impala’s eye in the wrong place. With a bit of luck, the resulting disorientation of the predator will turn into the hesitation it is looking for. Which might prove the difference between discovery (by prey from predator) and surprise (by predation from prey) and thus imposes the critical separation between capture and escape.

No defense is perfect. Impala’s deceptive camouflage is evident in broad daylight. It may work better at dusk or when the light fades, it may not work at all. And from above, of course, it is useless.

Leopards are powerful. As with all cats, their size-to-strength ratio is enormous. Five or six meters from the trees, the impalas of this story were within range of this completely silent leopard. Even if she couldn’t make it with a single jump in the back or neck of one of them, she would definitely be there for the bounce. One two! Everything blurry. And all the benefits would be hers.

As for defense overall, what deceives young predators will inevitably fail when experience reveals the tricks of the magician. However, the high mortality rate among juveniles means there are many more juvenile than adult predators. What the boys lack in experience they make up for in numbers. More of them are out there hunting, making them just as deadly collectively as their more experienced, if less numerous, parents. The Impala camouflage is having its moment.

Why the impala didn’t anticipate the potential for danger from above – from leopards of all ages – is hard to understand. Perhaps the distance they kept from the forest was sufficient. I don’t think so, but I’ll never know. We left for Nairobi before the sun came up, just after I saw the dark walking shape of this leopard.

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