Ungulates are everywhere! During the average South African safari, you’ll come across them daily. The hoofed animals of the savannah are some of the most numerous in Thornybush Private Nature Reserve, but when it comes to survival of the fittest, they’re not all evenly matched.
The most noticeable difference between these two kinds of hoofed animals are the number of hoof-bearing toes they have. Basically, animals that walk on one or three hoofs are known as odd-toed ungulates (zebras, horses, rhinos and tapirs).
Even-toed ungulates make up the rest of the hoofed animals on earth, these include bovines, antelope, warthogs and other pigs and sheep. Even the hippo is loosely lumped into this category, although from a distance.
It’s obvious from the animals mentioned above that the even-toed ungulates have an enormous numerical advantage over their single and triple-toed peers. In fact, there are only 17 species of perissodactyls (odd-toed ungulates) left on earth.
They are all distant relatives of other uneven-toed animals which used to walk the earth on 5 digits. Of these species, only the asses and horses are not in danger of following the route taken by their 5-toed ancestors. That said, the tribe has spoken for the quagga already.
By contrast, there are 220 species of artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates) on earth and 24 of these are considered at risk of extinction.
Despite their number of toes, the major difference between these two kinds of animals is their digestive systems. Odd-toed ungulates are hind-gut fermenters, which means that bacteria in the colon help to break down and digest plant matter.
All the even-toed ungulates are ruminants, with a complex multi-stomached digestive system which can efficiently digest plant material that could cause serious digestive issues for perissodactyls. They all chew the cud. See more about the ruminant digestive system here.
Many of the even-toed ungulates have horns, while odd-toed ungulates do not. Rhino horns are technically not horns in the true sense of the word and have ultimately been the downfall of this species.
It’s clear that the even-toed ungulates are winning the race for survival. However, it’s interesting to note some other points about both these types of animals.
Among the least threatened species on earth are those that have made themselves useful to man such as horses, cows, sheep, pigs, goats and camels. Among the most threatened are those which are systematically being eradicated by one species that walks the earth on 5 toes and doesn’t chew the cud.
Food for thought? Get in the thick of things when you visit Thornybush on a South African safari.