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Blue antelope extinction was caused by European colonization

Imagine a large antelope, not the usual dusty brown, but shimmering with a bluish-gray coat. Sleek, swift, and mysterious – that was the blue antelope.

Sadly, this beautiful animal hasn’t roamed the grasslands of South Africa in over 200 years. But why? That’s the puzzle scientists have been determined to solve.

Blue antelope extinction

Picture this: It’s the late 1700s. European colonists are venturing into southern Africa, coming across the magnificent blue antelope.

Within a mere few decades, this unique species vanishes — extinct, wiped off the face of the Earth just 34 years after it was first scientifically described.

Doesn’t that seem incredibly fast? You might wonder, how can an entire species disappear so quickly? The rapid decline of the blue antelope serves as a stark reminder of the fragile balance within ecosystems and the profound impact human activities can have on wildlife.

Clues in ancient DNA

Fast forward to today, and scientists have a powerful tool: DNA. A team of researchers, led by Prof. Dr. Michael Hofreiter from the University of Potsdam, carefully extracted DNA from a museum specimen of a blue antelope. This wasn’t just any DNA — they got a super detailed look at its genetic blueprint.

Now, when species have small populations for a long time, their DNA starts to show signs of inbreeding and harmful mutations build up.

Think of it like a family tree that keeps getting more tangled over generations. This can make them extra vulnerable to extinction.

But, here’s the twist: “However, the blue antelope had a small population size for many millennia before it became extinct around 1800,” explains Dr Hofreiter. Surprisingly, its DNA didn’t show these classic danger signs.

“The fact that no inbreeding and only a few detrimental mutations were detected indicates that the species was adapted to long-term low population size,” adds Elisabeth Hempel, who analyzed the DNA.

So, what did kill off the blue antelope?

Big populations of animals like antelopes usually shrink and grow with the ice ages. When the planet gets colder, grasslands dwindle, and so do the herds.

But, the blue antelope’s DNA shows they sailed through those icy times just fine. Its numbers stayed pretty steady, so climate change wasn’t the culprit.

“This result suggests that current models of long-term ecosystem dynamics in the region may need to be refined,” the researchers concluded. In other words, we might need to rethink how we understand African wildlife history.

Adaptation of blue antelope

The blue antelope had naturally existed in small populations for a very long time. This means they were remarkably well-adapted to survive with limited numbers.

Additionally, their population size remaining steady through ice ages shows their ability to handle harsh environmental changes.

While the blue antelope could handle natural challenges, the arrival of European colonizers brought a whole new level of disruption. This happened incredibly quickly on an evolutionary timescale, likely overwhelming the species.

The factors of human impact

Colonizers building towns and farms would have fragmented and destroyed the blue antelope’s habitat. This shrinks their range and makes them even more vulnerable as a small population.

Even if not hunted to extinction directly, antelopes would have been targeted as food sources by settlers, significantly reducing their numbers.

European land use practices, like agriculture and grazing, would have drastically changed the African grasslands. This could have wiped out food sources for the blue antelope or altered the landscape in ways they couldn’t adapt to.

Therefore, these rapid, human-made changes likely acted together as a devastating blow the blue antelope couldn’t recover from.

Their long history of resilience against natural pressures was tragically no match for the swift disruption of colonization.

More about the blue antelope

As discussed above, the blue antelope, known scientifically as Hippotragus leucophaeus, stood out from its relatives with its distinctive bluish-gray pelt, which earned it its name. Its iconic curved horns and majestic stature made it a truly magnificent sight in the southern African landscapes.

Physical characteristics

Physically, the blue antelope was robust and well-built, comparable in size to other members of the Hippotragus genus. It typically stood at about 120 to 150 cm (47 to 59 inches) at the shoulder, making it a medium-sized antelope. The body was muscular and compact, designed for endurance rather than speed.

One of its most distinctive features was its horns. Both males and females possessed these strong, ringed horns, which were slightly curved backwards.

The horns were not only a defense mechanism but also played a role in the animal’s social interactions and mating rituals.

The blue antelope’s eyes and face were marked with subtle white patches, contrasting with the darker tones of its body, adding to its striking appearance. Its legs were strong and ended in cloven hooves, adapted for navigating the rough terrains of its habitat in southern Africa.

Overall, the blue antelope was a beautiful and formidable species, evolved to thrive in its specific ecological niche before its unfortunate extinction.

Habitat and lifestyle

Native to the grasslands and lightly wooded areas of southern Africa, particularly modern-day South Africa, the blue antelope adapted well to its environment. It thrived in open landscapes, grazing on the plentiful grasses and herbs.

Despite these seemingly ideal conditions, the blue antelope never existed in large numbers, maintaining a small population footprint throughout its history.

Blue antelope legacy

While the loss of the blue antelope is tragic, its story isn’t over. Scientists even managed to pinpoint the genes that likely gave it that incredible blue-gray coat.

“As part of Colossal’s ongoing focus on ancient DNA, genotype to phenotype relationships, and ecosystem restoration, we were honored to collaborate on the groundbreaking work of Professor Hofreiter and his team,” said Ben Lamm, co-founder and CEO of Colossal Bioscience.

“The research objectives for the project allowed our teams to work together applying some of the latest Colossal ancient DNA and comparative genomic algorithms to learn what truly made the blue antelope the unique species it was.”

The extinction of the blue antelope shows us the fragility of nature and the unintended impact humans can have. It’s a reminder that even species tough enough to outlast ice ages can be vulnerable to our actions.

The full study was published in the journal Current Biology.


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