Quagga hoof – not as simple as it seems

This is the first blog (one of many I hope) from RAMM’s new volunteer Simon Tonge. He is a retired zoologist and former Director of Wild Planet Trust which is responsible for Paignton Zoo. Simon has an uncanny knack for uncovering fascinating stories in RAMM’s collections. In 2013 he visited the store and revealed just how special RAMM’s two Little Swan Island hutia are. In this blog Simon investigates another extinct species represented in RAMM’s collection – the quagga.

The Quagga – gone but not forgotten

Like the Dodo and the Great Auk, the Quagga is something of an emblem of extinction. In part this may be because of its extraordinary name, on which more later. But maybe it is because, unlike the first two, it is one of the extinct species that survived long enough to be photographed in life. Photographs of the Quagga kept in London Zoo in the 1870s have been widely published. We know exactly what the animal looked like in life. This adds a poignancy to its loss. It means that without too much effort it could have been saved and could still be with us today.

What was the Quagga?

The Quagga was a zebra. In fact, it was the second species of zebra to be discovered by western science. The first was the Cape Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra). The quagga occurred in the karoo and adjacent areas of the Free State in central South Africa and was given the scientific name Equus quagga. It looked much like zebra that are still alive today but with far fewer stripes. After that, the Plains Zebra (then called Equus burchelli) and Grevy’s Zebra (Equus grevyi) were discovered further north. This made a total of four zebra species in the world.

What happened to the Quagga

Counter-intuitively Africa was explored by Europeans from the south to the north, rather than from the (closer) north southwards. As usual, early settlers regarded the wildlife that they encountered as a boundless resource to be exploited. They slaughtered it with ruthless efficiency.

Among species that were special to South Africa the Quagga, the Cape Warthog and the Blaauwbok, a strange antelope, did not make it. Others, like the Mountain Zebra, Black Wildebeest, Blesbok and Bontebok had very narrow escapes. Populations of under fifty survived just long enough for conservation measures to be implemented. Although it wasn’t much good to eat, its hide made good grain sacks. That was enough to seal its death warrant.

The last Quagga died in 1883.

Colour photograph of a quagga hoof and the lower part of the leg laying on its side. There is a museum label on the underside of the hoof

The Quagga’s legacy

All that remains of this species are twenty-three mounted specimens, some of them are laughably badly stuffed, and a number of assorted skulls and feet scattered through the great natural history museums of the world. This lack of preserved material indicates that trophy hunting was not the cause of its demise.

RAMM has a hoof and the lower part of a foreleg in its collection (AN758). It is provenanced from ‘Bontebok Flats’ in South Africa in 1869 and came to the museum via William D’Urban, RAMM’s first curator. It is hard to be sure that it really is from a Quagga, as opposed to one of the other species, as zebra hooves are all much of a muchness. Only DNA testing, which is very expensive, will settle the question definitively. And therein lies a twist in the tale of the Quagga.

The Quagga lives?

The Quagga was supposedly given its name in mimicry of its call (‘kwa-hah’) as transliterated by the early settlers. Anyone who has ever done a safari in Africa will know that the ubiquitous Plains Zebra, found in most national parks on the continent, also makes an identical ‘kwa-hah’ call. It took more than a hundred years before someone spotted the similarity. They made the case that the Quagga and the Plains Zebra were one and the same thing. DNA testing confirmed this. The Quagga lives!

The Plains Zebra has a huge range in eastern and southern Africa and there is a gradation (in scientific language a ‘cline’) between heavily striped zebras in East Africa and very lightly striped ones in the south. The Quagga was simply the southern endpoint in the cline. The stripes were restricted to its neck, making it look a bit weird compared to the zebras that are so familiar to us from Kenya and Tanzania. So, the Quagga was basically an unstriped Plains Zebra. As a result the scientific name of the Palins Zebra becomes Equus quagga (because the quagga was discovered first). The Quagga is considered a subspecies and is now called Equus quagga quagga.

So with this knowledge The Quagga Project began in 1987 to try to recreate the Quagga by selectively breeding unstriped or lightly striped zebras. They have had some success breeding animals which it is hard to say are not Quaggas, at least to look at. Whether they are exactly the same animals genetically is a more open question and should keep scientists arguing for years to come.

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