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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Hoofstock - An Acquired Taste

If we're going to spend a month talking about ungulates (commonly referred to by zookeepers as "hoofstock"), then we might as well clear the air over one point.

A lot of people find them boring.  And not just zoo visitors - other keepers, too.  Many a carnivore keeper views a kudu or an eland solely in terms of the enrichment value that it could provide their big cats... and they usually aren't shy about letting the hoofstock keepers know that.

There are about 240 or so mammals which we would call "Ungulates", divided into two families.  The vast majority of them are the Even-Toed Ungulates of the family Artiodactyla.  Their numbers include the hippos, pigs, peccaries, giraffe and okapi, camels and llamas, pronghorn, as well as the bovids - the cattle, sheep, goats, and antelope.  The remainder are the Odd-Toed Ungulates (Perissodactyla), consisting of the rhinos, tapirs, and horses, zebras, and asses.

Note: Though they are related to other ungulates, hippos and rhinos, and to a lesser degree giraffe, okapi, and tapir, are generally recognized to be *different* from most hoofstock, and don't get lumped in with the rest.

I'm throwing those numbers out there to help show a point - ungulates are anything but boring.  There is a tremendous amount of diversity among them.  They inhabit every ecosystem imaginable, from the arctic (musk-ox) to the Amazon (Brazilian tapir), from the Sahara (scimitar-horned oryx) to the Himalayas (markhor).  They range in size from a four-pound mouse deer to a 2.5 ton white rhinoceros (in which the individual poops are bigger than the mouse deer).  Some are solitary, some form herds in the hundreds of thousands.  They come in an array of forms that includes spots and stripes and horns and antlers and... fangs.  Hell, some of them are even predatory!

The majority of our domestic mammals are ungulates.  Many of our most recognizable zoo species - zebras, giraffes, bison, and camels - are ungulates.  At the same time, new species are still being discovered, including, most spectacularly, the saola of Southeast Asia, still almost unknown to science.

Tragically, the diversity of ungulates is increasingly at risk of becoming lost.  Many species are in decline, with a handful even having become extinct in the wild.  Much has been done to save those species, but much still remains to be done.  This will be a challenge to accomplish.  It'll be harder still if we do so laboring under the impression that these incredible animals are boring.  They are anything but.

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