Species without relatives?

November 8, 2011 • 6:33 am

Whenever I get a reader comment that starts with, “I don’t want to be nitpicky. . . “, I know that what follows will totally pick a nit.  Well, that’s usually okay in the interests of accuracy, and I have my own nit to pick this morning. (And do recall that “nitpicking’ has a biological origin: it originally referred to removing lice eggs—”nits”—from people’s hair.)

Today’s New York Times has a piece by Douglas Quenqua on attempts to breed the okapi in captivity.  Okapis are artiodactyls (even-toed mammals) found in central Africa, and there’s only one species (Okapia johnstoni). Here’s a specimen (note the slightly elongated neck):

Okapis are in the mammal family Giraffidae, which contains one other species, the giraffe (Giraffa cameleopardis, of which there is only one species but many [contested] subspecies). The specific name of giraffes, cameleopardis, has a Medieval Latin origin reflecting the fact that giraffes have spots like leopards but faces like camels. See? (camel photo from Shutterstock).

Anyway, the gist of the Times piece is that okapis are skittish, solitary, endngered, and notoriously hard to breed in captivity:

The pairing of two okapis begins with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which keeps a “stud book” that contains genetic information on all okapis in American zoos. Mates are chosen to prevent inbreeding and maximize genetic diversity among calves.

Once they are paired, okapis at the Bronx Zoo are placed in adjoining cages with a multistage sliding door between them. At first, the door is opened just enough to let the animals smell each other. If they don’t respond aggressively, another part of the door is opened after a week or two so they can see each other, then another the next week so they can touch.

“They’re working it out socially,” said Pat Thomas, general curator and associate director of the Bronx Zoo. “We let them tell us when they’re comfortable.”

To prepare female okapis for pregnancy, they are given mock sonograms every day. The idea is to make the procedure, which requires close contact with handlers, less stressful for the animal and less dangerous for the humans.

When it comes time to give birth, the okapi mothers — unlike other animals in the zoo — are left alone, monitored only by a closed-circuit camera.

Breeding M’bura was somewhat simplified by the fact that her parents — Kweli, a 14-year-old female, and Poucet, “a genetically desirable male,” according to Mr. Breheny — had mated before. This time, the two were brought together in March 2010, and M’bura was born on June 2 this year.

But birth is not the end of the husbandry process. Because okapis are easily spooked, curators forgo neonatal exams on the calf. This reduces the likelihood that the mother will refuse to nurse or, worse, try to harm the calf. One way the handlers know the calf is doing well is if it doesn’t defecate for the first four to six weeks.

Live and learn.  But what really bothered me about the piece (and I’m channeling Andy Rooney here) was this statement:

Okapis are the only known relative of the giraffe, but with the silhouette of an antelope.

What? “Only known relative of the giraffe?”  In fact, everything is a known relative of the giraffe, including ferns, alligators, and humans! All species are related to greater or lesser degrees.  The Times statement is like saying that “Jerry is the only known relative of his sister,” despite the existence of my many cousins.

What Quenqua meant, of course, is that okapis are the closest living relative of the giraffe, a statement that’s accurate.

What are the next closest relatives? Guess. It’s not obvious!




It’s the family Antilocapridae, which contains only a single species, the pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) which is, of course, native to North America, not Africa. It’s the sole living representative of what was a diverse family of artiodactyls during the Pliocene and Miocene.   Here’s a phylogeny from the reference given at the bottom:

Note that giraffes are more closely related to whales than to camels! That would surely confuse many laypeople.

Voilà le pronghorn, a lovely beast:

So that’s my nit, but one that bears on one of the most important findings of evolutionary biology: every species is related to every other.  The Times should correct the sentence.


Price, S. A., O. R. P. Bininda-Emonds, and J. L.Gittleman. 2005. A complete phylogeny of the whales, dolphins and even-toed hoofed mammals (Cetartiodactyla). Biological Review: 80: 445-473.

45 thoughts on “Species without relatives?

  1. Sloppy, lazy, black-and-white thinking. I fight it every chance I get (at the grave risk of appearing nitpicky…).

    1. Agreed. Sloppy language in this case reflects sloppy thinking, and must be rooted out at every opportunity (not nitpicking). I see this all the time in college biology students who seem to fail to grasp the tree of life (maybe it’s my fault!). For example, I have received this definition of homoplasy (e.g., by convergent evolution) on an exam: two organisms display a similar trait, but they didn’t have a common ancestor (!). (the students meant to say that the trait evolved independently in the two lineages and was not inherited from a common ancestor).

  2. I don’t want to be nitpicky…

    …but “camelopardalis” (καμηλοπάρδαλις) has a Greek origin, not a Latin one. It is a compound term from two Greek words, “kamela,” which is “camel,” and “pardalos,” which means “spotted.” There’s a Latinised version, taken from Greek, but the origin remains most definitely Greek (“kamela” and “pardalos” are meaningless terms in Latin, but still mean the same thing in Modern Greek).

    Greeks seem to have quickly acquired a reputation for being irresponsible, unlike those hardworking Germans who are bailing them out, so let us at least not begrudge them their ancient contributions.

        1. What??? – did I just do a lazy, black’n’white, non-researched comment about an ad I thought looked weird (SLAP) I think that was what happened, and I’m sorry. The layout of that ad is pretty ugly though – and my brain often makes the “ugly graphics = ugly content”. I’ll be more critical in the future!

      1. I know that Wagner is an acquired taste, like Brie or Retsina, but I’m trying to figure out which opera was fatal in this case. My guess is that the swooping notes of the Valkyries is the most likely culprit.

        1. I worked a few years at the Copenhagen University. The very same okapi is stuffed in the Zoological Museum Copenhagen. Upon learning how it had died I also was willing to bet my ass that it was the ride of the Valkyries, but my operatic sources told it was the Tannhäuser overture.

          Then, a rumor told that when its carcass arrived at the museum some students decided to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and had an okapi steak when they could.

          The open-air operatic concerts continued to be a feature of Copenhagen cultural life, and to this day I regret I didn’t organize a major prank and take the okapi to revisit the scene of its last moments on Earth.

  3. Okapi info fascinating. And of course we are all related. My mother was nee Johnston so I feel a very close relationship to the Okapi pictured! (Okapia johnstoni)
    Trying to keep the MSM honest and accurate is a worthwhile endeavour. And grammatical! Many sins there.
    Great column –

  4. The Okapi by Daniel Cwiak

    I went to the zoo and saw an okapi
    Unlike the hare, he did no hippity-hoppy
    But, like his cousin the giraffe
    It truly had to make me laugh
    Its long tongue kept its ears from getting sloppy

    [ Terrible, but I had to smile 🙂 ]

  5. “What are the next closest relatives? Guess. It’s not obvious!”

    With that sort of build up I was expecting something like ‘spiders’!

    1. Umm. . . wouldn’t you expect it to be a mammal? You’ve been in the molecular biology lab too long!

      1. I was thinking of the Monty Python sketch from the ‘Live at the Hollywood Bowl’ show where they discuss the relatives of the whale.
        “Do you know the whale is not really a fish”
        “It’s an insect”

        1. Was it Peter Cook as E. L. Wisty who said, “the whale is in fact a fish and can survive for a whole year upon a grain of rice”?

          1. I thought he said that whale is an insect and lives on bananas.

            You may remember that in one of their more insane drunken recording sessions as Derek and Clive, Pete and Dud had a sketch about “the barking toad”, an endangered species. It ended with the revelation that whales are all Nazis and they had attended the Nuremberg rallies.

  6. I would think as woodland, or jungle animals, that okapi would be happier if there were trees and undergrowth to hide in. Perhaps that is why they are hard to breed andskittish. I expect that plains dwellers are harder to scare as they can see everything coming – and prefer to see predators as that means they know where they are.

  7. That’s one of those mistakes that seems more painful the more times you hear it – might even be worse than the common analogy of evolution as a ladder.

  8. But the camels – they are right out there on their own. No wonder they appear to be so snooty! The antelocaprids – they were a much bigger group in the past were they not? Now the pronghorn is the only species – isn’t it?

  9. The Okapi picture brings to mind what Yogi Berra said when he was shown a picture of a platypus. “There’s no such animal.”

  10. Here’s another nit: The Pronghorn is not an antelope. It has true horns, but the prong is shed annually. Antelopes have unbranching horns with no shedding.

    I saw probably a couple hundred Pronghorns on my road trip this past spring. The ones residing in national and state parks were pretty calm around humans.

    Sadly, I did not see any showing off their incredible speed.

  11. Pronghorns have always been called ‘antelopes’ colloquially. And there is no valid scientific/taxonomic group of True Antelopes, just a paraphyletic trashcan of various bovids. Therefore I say let pronghorns be antelopes!

  12. Need more Gnus:

    one of the most important findings of evolutionary biology: every species is related to every other.

    It is also by way of Theobald’s LUCA paper the best established observation ever, I would think.

    Maybe the contenders of best known facts would be that all of us are born and die, with the corollary hence there was no zombie called “Jesus”?

    1. [After a brief think I don’t think one can devise such a powerful test for the latter. We likely know the LUCA better than we know our own impending death!

      And the theologians claim that there is no *awesome* in science.]

  13. Jerry:

    “So that’s my nit, but one that bears on one of the most important findings of evolutionary biology: every species is related to every other. The Times should correct the sentence.”

    So The Times should acknowledge we’re all related somehow. I love your website, but this is is a nit that to my mind didn’t need picking – settle for the correct parts, and enjoy it, there are more important battles to fight, or things to complain about. You’re too young, and far too much more entertaining and informing, to become a website Andy Rooney.

    Best wishes,

    1. Umm. . . you think this is the only “battle” I’m fighting? It was also an opportunity to highlight the okapi and convey a biology lesson, which was by far the largest segment of the post.

      The comment of “website Andy Rooney” is not appreciated.

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