|Common Name||Scimitar-horned Oryx and Sahara Oryx|
Extinct in the Wild
The scimitar oryx formed herds of mixed sexes of up to 70 members, usually guided by the bulls. They inhabited semideserts and deserts and were adapted to live in the extreme heat, with their efficient cooling mechanism and very low requirement of water. Scimitar oryx feed on foliage, grasses, succulent plants and plant parts during the night or early morning. Births peak between March and October. After a gestation of eight to nine months, one calf is born. Soon after, the female has a postpartum estrus.
The scimitar oryx was once widespread in northern Africa. Its decline began as a result of climate change, and later it was hunted extensively for its horns. Today, it is bred in captivity in special reserves in Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal. The scimitar oryx was domesticated in Ancient Egypt and is believed to have been used as food and sacrificed as offerings to gods. Wealthy people in Ancient Rome also bred them. The use of their valuable hides began in the Middle Ages. The unicorn myth may have originated from sightings of a scimitar oryx with a broken horn.
Ecology and Behavior
With a metabolism that functions at the high temperatures prevalent in their habitats, scimitar oryx need less water for evaporation to help conduct heat away from the body, enabling them to go for long periods without water. They can allow their body temperature to rise to almost 46.5 °C (115.7 °F) before beginning to perspire. In times of ample supply, oryx can use fluid loss through urination and feces to lower their body temperature to below 97 °F (36 °C) at night, giving more time before reaching maximum body temperature the following day. They can tolerate high temperatures that would be lethal to most mammals. They have a network of fine blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the brain, passing close to the nasal passage and thus allowing the blood to cool by up to 5 °F (3 °C) before reaching the brain, which is one of the most heat-sensitive organs of the body.
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Courting is done by means of a mating circle: the male and female stand parallel to one another, facing in opposite directions, and then circle around each other until the female allows the male to mount from behind. If the female is not ready to mate, she runs away and circles in the reverse direction. Pregnant females leave the herd for a week, give birth to the calf and conceive again during their postpartum estrus; thus they can produce a calf a year. Gestation lasts about nine months, after which a single calf is born, weighing 20 to 33 pounds (9.1 to 15 kg). Twin births are very rare - only 0.7% of the births observed in one study. Both mother and calf return to the main herd within hours of the birth. The female separates herself from the herd for a few hours while she nurses the calf. Weaning starts at 3.5 months, and the young become fully independent at around 14 weeks old.
In ancient Egypt scimitar oryx were domesticated and tamed, possibly to be used as offerings for religious ceremonies or as food. They were called ran and bred in captivity. In ancient Rome they were kept in paddocks and used for coursing, and wealthy Romans ate them. The scimitar oryx was the preferred quarry of Sahelo-Saharan hunters. Its hide is of superior quality, and the king of Rio de Oro sent 1000 shields made of it to a contemporary in the Middle Ages. Since then, it has been used to make ropes, harnesses and saddlery.
The myth of the one-horned unicorn may have originated from sightings of injured scimitar oryx; Aristotle and Pliny the Elder held that the oryx was the unicorn's "prototype". From certain angles, the oryx may seem to have one horn rather than two, and given that its horns are made from hollow bone that cannot be regrown, if an oryx were to lose one of its horns, for the rest of its life it would have only one.