Little Bits of History

August 12

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 12, 2017

1883: The last quagga dies. The animal was a subspecies of South African zebras. Originally thought to be a separate species altogether, DNA studies have been done and it was found that the quagga is the southernmost subspecies of the plains zebra and particularly close to Burchell’s zebra. The quagga name was derived from the call the animal made which sounded like “kwa-ha-ha”. The horselike zebralike animal was about 8.5 feet long and about 4 feet at the shoulder. Different from other zebras, the stripe pattern was usually brown and white and stopped at the shoulder or covered only the front part of the body.

European settlers were aware of the differences between more northern zebras which are are also colloquially called quagga, and these animals which came from what is today South Africa. There is little evidence of the animal in the fossil record but it is depicted in cave art attributed to the San whose history goes back 35,000 years. The animal was thought to travel in herds, like zebras do today, and had 30-50 individuals in the herd. Europeans at the time of their discovery called them wild and lively but were said to be more docile than the more usual black and white zebras we see today. They were quite numerous in the Karoo of Cape Province and the southern part of Orange Free State in South Africa.

As more Dutch came to the region and began farming, the herds of quagga were hunted because they competed with the domesticated livestock as both foraged for food. Most of the animals were killed but some were taken to Europe to be displayed in zoos. Breeding programs were unsuccessful and the animal was hunted to extinction in the wild by 1878. On this day, the last zoo specimen died at a zoo in Amsterdam. Only one specimen was ever photographed and that was at the London Zoo. There are only 23 skins preserved today.

As DNA studies grew, the first extinct animal to have their DNA analyzed was the quagga. The Quagga Project is an attempt by South Africa to selectively breed plains zebras to resemble the quagga. First suggested in 1955 and taken up in more earnestness in 1971, the idea was slow to get off the ground. Since it was found to be a subspecies of the zebra after the DNA was read, the idea became more feasible. In March 1986 the project was begun and the following year, nine zebras were selected to begin the selective breeding process. The Project’s first foal was born in December 1988. In 2005, Henry, the first to be considered quagga- like because of his striping, was born. The first fifth-generation Rau quagga was born in 2013. By 2016, the Quagga Project listed 116 animals in 10 locations with six individuals showing a strongly reduced stripe pattern. Their goal is to get 50 such quagga.

There’s no limit to how much you’ll know, depending how far beyond zebra you go – Dr. Seuss

Every time I look at a zebra, I can’t figure out whether it’s black with white stripes or white with black stripes, and that frustrates me. – Jodi Picoult

How fast does a zebra have to run before it looks gray. – Demetri Martin

A zebra does not change its spots. – Al Gore

 

 

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