Episode 125 – Okapi: The Sneak Forest Ungulate

“And today we’re talking about a big sneaky horse, giraffe, zebra. But more on that later.”

The African Savannah is dominated by predators but the jungles of the Congo aren’t much safer. The dense forests conceal powerful predators like the leopard, which catches prey that didn’t even know she was there. Today, poachers are even more dangerous, taking game with dwindling numbers. Where is an African ungulate to find refuge? Only through a toolkit of stealth and evasion that’s unheard of among large creatures. But when your environment seems stacked against you, skill and perseverance is the key to Life, Death, and Taxonomy.


  • This guy is an oddball. Sheriff John is sort of the platypus of the hooved mammals.
  • Despite being in the family giraffidae, he looks a whole lot more like a tall zebra that God decided to stop painting.
  • The general body shape is that of a horse, like a zebra, but with a slightly longer neck
  • And also like a zebra, the front and back legs as well as the haunches are covered in black and white strips.
  • But that’s where it ends. Most of the rest of the okapi, including its back, tail, torso, shoulders, neck, crown, and ears are all dark brown. They think this is to help it camouflage, which is odd because a zebra is striped so that it blends in with other zebras.
  • The okapi’s face is white with a brown streak coming down the middle of the nose from the crown.
  • And speaking of crowns, this is where the similarities with the giraffe appear. The male okapi has two protuberances on its head called ossicones, which is exactly what the giraffe has (though both female and male giraffes have ossicones). Females have hair whorls (remember whorls from the olive snail episode?)
  • Their head is deer-ish in shape and they have relatively large ears that allow them to hear above average.

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words measure up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a measure up intro so that means we get to hear from an animal and Carlos will guess what it is.

  1. baby hyena
  2. Ocelot (5:56)
  3. possum
  4. moped that needs an oil change.

Height at the Shoulder

  • 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in)
  • How many okapis go into the depth of the deepest part of the Congo River?
  • Hint: The Congo is the deepest river in the world and the second largest river by discharge, which is the water flow rate.
  • 146.4 okapis. The river is 220 m (720 ft) deep.


  • 200 to 350 kg (440 to 770 lb)
  • 700 lbs
  • How many mangoes go into the weight of an okapi?
  • Hint: Mangoes are popular in the Congo and they’re available to eat year round. Other staples of congolese cuisine include, corn, rice, yuca, yams, plantains, and even pumpkins. 
  • 1,587 mangos. Mangoes are about 200 grams on average.

Fast Facts

  • They can rotate their eyeballs backward to protect them as they pass by leaves and branches in the forest.
  • Range: Pretty much only lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa.
  • Diet: herbivore eating leaves, flowers, grass, ferns, fruit, and fungi
  • They have 18-inch tongues used for grasping tree branches and fruit
  • They only have three sounds they make since their vocal cords are poorly developed
    • A “chuff” that both males and females use to communicate
    • A “moan” that females use during courtship
    • A “bleat” used by infants when they’re stressed out
  • Okapi can use the Flehmen response, much like the tapir, to deter rivals or predators.
  • They’re pretty endangered due to hunting and habitat loss
  • The Okapi Wildlife Preserve headquarters was attacked in 2012 by a gang of poachers that killed six guards and poached 14 okapis.

Major Fact

When we first learned about the Okapi, we found that it had loads of interesting stuff to talk about it, but no breakout major fact.

  • Listener Doug then suggested it and said the same thing, “It doesn’t really have a “major fact” so it might not be a suitable candidate for the show but dang if it isn’t cute AF.”
  • However, when researching it, I found that many of its interesting facts all pointed to one thing, it’s stealth.
  • Even toe it’s a pretty big ungulate, it’s a master of forest stealth.

Here are a few features that make okapi sneaky sneaky.

  • Okapi have extremely sensitive ears that allow them to elude predators.
    • They’re so elusive that they were not discovered by Western scientists until 1900.
    • Today, we’re aren’t totally sure how many there are left, though we know they are significantly threatened. 
    • Their hearing alerts them to predators and people far enough away for them to run before anything gets there.
    • This may help them deal with predators like leopards that are also built for stealth. 
  • Baby okapi don’t poop for two months after they’re born. 
    • This may help limit scent trails that could attract predators. 
  • Because they’re so hard to find, they need to leave bread crumbs for each other for mating.
    • They excrete a tar-like substance that smells foul to mark their territories and to let other okapi know where they are.
    • If that doesn’t work, they can also emit a low frequency hum like the elephant that can’t be detected by predators.
  • They’re body patterns help them camouflage in the forest.
    • The okapi are brown, black, and white with strange and distinct color patterns.
    • They’re even distinct from each other, and their patterns are thought to be as unique as fingerprints. 
    • But why do zebra-like stripes help with camouflage. 
    • When it comes to zebras, it’s not all about camo. Instead, it’s about confusing predators that would try to isolate and pick off an individual. 
    • If you can’t focus on just one zebra, it will be hard to catch.
    • For okapi’s, it’s more about breaking up their silhouette against the forest background.
  • This is called disruptive coloration and it’s used by loads of animals and people.
    • This type of camouflage uses patterns that break up uniform or repeating patterns to create a natural random visual pattern to match your background.
    • This is different but related to more sophisticated camouflage that’s designed to completely mimic an object’s surroundings.
    • It works because landscapes are rarely uniform in color, except in snow. Even a verdant green forest will have random light and dark patterns as light and shadows mix together.
    • The okapi doesn’t need to look like a forest, it just needs for you and leopards to miss it when scanning the landscape for objects that stick out. 
    • A monochromatic outline would stick out against the bespeckled forest landscape.
    • Disruptive coloration often uses high-contrast patterns. Light colors and dark colors.
    • As in the case of the okapi, disruptive coloration can also hide telltale features like the okapi’s legs and hind quarters. 
    • They also have shiny coats that can be somewhat reflective which increases their high-contrast pattern.