Mention Africa and lions, cheetahs, gazelles, elephants, rhinoceroses and leopards come to mind, but none of these animals are uniquely African, as they are also indigenous in Asia. For instance one of the three surviving species of elephant in the world, the Indian elephant, is Asian. So which mammal is the most iconic-ally African, in the same way that the kangaroo is Australian or the tiger is Asian?
I think there are two big contenders – the hippopotamus and the giraffe. But which? Can either claim to be more African?
Ancestors of the hippo lived in Africa in the Miocene from 16-8 million years ago. The English name hippopotamus comes from ancient Greek meaning horse of the river. So were there hippopotamuses in Europe once? Yes, hippo ancestors spread from Africa to Europe, and three species of the genus once ranged throughout Europe, but all were extinct by the last ice age (20-25,000 years ago). However smaller dwarf species of hippopotami survived that calamity on several islands in the Mediterranean. The last of these died out on the island of Cyprus at the end of the Pleistocene, around 12,000 years ago. Since then the hippo has remained uniquely African with only two remaining genii – one species in each, the common hippopotamus and the pygmy hippopotamus.
Is the giraffe as uniquely African as the hippopotamus?
The English name giraffe has its origins in Arabic – zarāfah (زرافة). Like hippo ancestors, giraffes evolved in Africa and then spread to Europe and Asia. Fossils of one of the earliest giraffid ancestors called Cathumeryx were found in northern Africa and, like a hippo ancestor, can be dated to the early Miocene – around 18 million years ago. Descendants spread out and the direct ancestor if the modern giraffe is thought to be the Bohlinia genus, which existed in the later Miocene from 9-7 million years ago in Europe, and which seemed to then move to Asia, probably due to changing climate. Bohlinia entered Africa around 7 million years ago. While the Eurasian giraffes went extinct, probably due to the same ice age that effected the hippos, the African giraffe evolved from Bohlinia and radiated into two genii, the descendants of which are the okapi (only one species), and the giraffe (with four remaining modern giraffe species).
So both species, the common hippopotamus and the giraffe, can claim similar African ancestry. Both are totally distinct, are easily recognisable and are undoubtedly unique animals. None occur outside Africa. So, which is the most iconic African species?
Personally I would vote the giraffe as Africa’s most symbolic.
Why? Perhaps because Africa is thought of as an arid continent, and I conjure up images of an open plain, and a giraffe feeding on acacia leaves! Think of the giraffe and I think of Africa.
What do you think?