Once every four years, the cream of the world’s sportsmen and -women gather together to take part in the oldest and most prestigious competition in the world. Since 776 BC, the Olympic Games has pitted the greatest human specimens against each other in a multitude of events designed to showcase their talents.
Perhaps the most esteemed branch of these sporting disciplines is athletics. Most sports involve a combination of skills that come together in harmony to produce their required art form, but athletics is different. I have enjoyed this physical pursuit since I was a child: it’s the purest form of what the human body is capable of. The merging of muscular perfection and the sheer desire to push oneself to the edge of the envelope and beyond is the epitome of what the ancients used to call gladiators.
Throughout millions of years of evolution, the animal kingdom has developed multiple champions in a variety of disciplines. Its genetics and limited cognitive power (when compared to human beings) have forced each and every species to become a champion in its own right, based purely on its physical prowess. Survival of the fittest dictates that the species with inferior abilities simply do not make it. Perhaps one of the greatest yet most overlooked heroes in the African bush is the humble impala.
While not exactly what we consider one of the main attractions, the impala is one of the most successful creatures to grace Sabi Sabi. This lowly antelope’s slight build veils the fact that it is one of fastest animals on the planet (reaching speeds in excess of 80 km per hour) and possesses an almost unparalled jumping ability. These skills have cemented the impala’s place as the most common antelope seen and therefore, unfortunately for the species, it is the main source of protein for the majority of carnivores that also reside within our boundaries.
This latter point has no doubt been influential in honing the powerful muscles in the impala’s legs: the source of its incredible elasticity. From a standing start the antelope is capable of leaping higher than 3 m in the air and can bound across distances of up to 10 m when in full flight. These attributes have enabled the impala to flee from danger at a moment’s notice. Its eyes, being positioned on the sides of its head, give it a field of vision of almost 300°, endowing it with a reaction time that could rival that of any Olympic sprinter. Its physique is perfectly equated to that of a human longer-distance runner. Unlike the muscular body of a sprinter or, in this case, a big cat, the impala’s lightweight assembly also gives it increased endurance to aid evasion from predators.
Impalas often employ a tactic known as ‘stotting’, whereby they leap into the air, kicking their back legs straight out behind them. Perhaps this is designed to show predators how supple they are, but we don’t know for sure. Science is just ‘best guess’ after all! Not only does the ability to leap help impalas elude their pursuers; the animals also employ a chemical warfare that is designed to confuse. The metatarsal glands on their hindlegs are unique to the species and while there is no definitive explanation for their existence, the most accepted theory is that they release a pheromone that may either confound a predator or allow the herd structure to stay intact during the ensuing chaos. The glands are reflected in the impala’s scientific name Aepyceros melampus, the species name coming from the Greek literally translated as ‘black foot’.
Although the impala may never achieve greatness in the Animal Olympics, it could certainly feature heavily in the speed, hurdling and jumping events. A jack of all trades then! However, as a prime food source, it has had to hone its skills – and honed they are. The impala is a remarkably successful species. It epitomises the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius, a Latin expression meaning ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’. Commonplace it may be, but without impalas, predators could not thrive and the biodiversity of the area would be compromised. Carbon is an abundant element, but that does not mean it should be overlooked. It is the essential building block of all life. It takes just a slight manipulation or rearrangement of its molecules to create a diamond.
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