June 2021

The symbiotic relationship of Burchell’s zebra and blue wildebeest


The symbiotic relationship of Burchell’s zebra and blue wildebeest

For the longest time in history the Burchell’s zebra and the blue wildebeest (gnu) have been known to live together. For more than a thousand game drives under my belt as a guide, in almost all the cases on the safari I’m bound to find them together. The biggest question is Why?

Before diving into their relationship let’s get a greater insight on both these animal species and their characteristics. Both these magnificent creatures have behaviours which are so different yet so important for the safety of the other due to the others lack of such a trait.

Burchell’s zebra

The Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchellii) is a stunning animal with unmissable black and white stripes. This magnificent creature is equipped with vast features which help protect it from enemies both large and small. The stripes work as a camouflage rather known as colour confusion. This is noted when a group of zebras get chased by lions - the stripes confuse the lion and suddenly they lose their targets. The zebras are well equipped with hooves which are strong enough to break a lion’s jaw. 

Blue wildebeest

Blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) are a part of the antelope family, even though they have really heavy bodies with bovine features. It is also known as a gnu and got the Afrikaans name Wildebeest from its unappealing looks from its disproportionate head and shaggy mane. They are different from their cousins the black wildebeest mainly by horn shape - the blue have an outward curve and the black have a forward curve. They shouldn’t be found in the same area because they can crossbreed.

Zebras and wildebeest have developed a great relationship and can benefit one another. From feeding, the zebra normally feeds on the top parts of the grass or the tall grasses. This allows the wildebeest to easily access their preferred grass which is the short grass. With their compensating features the zebra have great eyesight which helps spot predators from afar, and wildebeest have a great sense of hearing allowing them to hear predators from afar. It means both species have an ally to help warn them of danger. Since they like a more plain open grassy area this makes them more vulnerable and that is why they need the numbers (advantage) for safety from predators. 

It is always an interesting sighting to see their great symbiosis which always give an immensely beautiful perspective. When you spot a group of zebras you will have a great chance, almost a guarantee, of seeing wildebeest close by.  

By Johan Ndlovu
Field Guide