Most of us have probably seen Fantasia, or at the very least, a clip of the hippos twirling around in tutus and nearly overwhelming their crocodilian escorts.
But the real prima ballerinas in Africa aren’t pirouetting through the rivers and ponds, they’re traipsing daintily across the plains, graceful necks and long, whippet-thin legs extended in a sort of antelope arabesque. They’re gerenuks!
A Gerenuk in fifth position.
“Lightmatter gerenuk” by By Aaron Logan – from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php. Licensed under CC BY 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lightmatter_gerenuk.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lightmatter_gerenuk.jpg
If you haven’t heard of these bush ballerinas, it’s not only because gerenuks (a name that derives from Somali, and means, aptly, “giraffe neck”) are a rare sighting on safari; it’s because of the gerenuk’s notoriously humble nature. Biologists have noted their unfailing willingness to help other gerenuks in need, and in African folklore, the gerenuk is regularly referred to as the “Queen of Humbleness.”
Basically, they’re probably not launching too many personal PR campaigns.
But if you are lucky enough to spot one, you’ll be glad you did; when the gerenuk feeds, it rears up on its spindly hind legs, stretching its already long neck further into the branches to reach the most tender leaves, shoots, and fruits, looking for all the world like a very elongated dancer en pointe.
Feeding requires grace…and some seriously good balance!
“Gerenuks in Samburu” by frederic.salein – originally posted to Flickr as Gerenuks in Samburu. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gerenuks_in_Samburu.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Gerenuks_in_Samburu.jpg
As timid as they are delicate, gerenuks run away at high speeds when threatened. Often, though, they instead choose to stand very still behind a tree or bush, then slowly tiptoe away, heads lowered.
…which you’d be forgiven for mistaking for a scene from a new, African-themed version of Swan Lake.