Scientists Say: Okapi | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Okapi

This African mammal shares its long tongue with its closest relative — the giraffe
Mar 18, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
a photo of two okapi in a zoo enclosure

These are okapi. Don’t let the stripes fool you. They are closely related to giraffes, not zebras. 

Alan Eng/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-2.0)

Okapi (noun, “Oh-KAH-pee”)

Okapis are mammals that are native to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa. They are forest dwellers that dine on the leaves, fruits and fungi of the understory — the area of the forest below the tall canopy. Okapis are about the size of a pony. Their brown or red-brown fronts resemble a horse or mule. But their back and legs sport zebra-like stripes. 

Don’t let the stripes fool you, though. The okapi is most closely related to giraffes. This might be surprising not just because the okapi lacks its cousin’s long neck. Giraffes are herd animals, after all, while okapi are loners. But there are similarities: They have the same long ears. They rest their weight on the same number of toes, just two. The males have similar hair-covered horns, called ossicones, on their heads. Okapis even stick out the same super-long tongues (around 45 centimeters, or 18 inches) that giraffes have. Okapis use their long tongues to grab leaves, clean themselves and even lick their own eyeballs.

Okapis have been dwindling in numbers and are currently endangered. That’s because people have been logging and moving into the forests where okapis live. The animals are also sometimes hunted for their meat and skins.

In a sentence

Zebras wear stripes to shoo away flies, but okapi may use their stripes to blend into a sun-dappled forest.

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Power Words

(more about Power Words)

canopy     (in botany) The top layer of a tree — or forest — where the tallest branches overlap.

endangered     An adjective used to describe species at risk of going extinct.

forest     An area of land covered mostly with trees and other woody plants.

fruit     A seed-containing reproductive organ in a plant.

mammal     A warm-blooded animal distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for feeding their young, and (typically) the bearing of live young.

native     Associated with a particular location; native plants and animals have been found in a particular location since recorded history began. These species also tend to have developed within a region, occurring there naturally (not because they were planted or moved there by people). Most are particularly well adapted to their environment.

okapi     A hoofed, striped animal, a relative of the giraffe.

ossicones These are horn-like structures on giraffes and okapis. They are not antlers — which are made of keratin, like hair or fingernails. Instead, ossicones are made of cartilage and covered in hair.

understory     Plants that grow beneath the canopy, or uppermost level, of the forest.