Species Differentiation among African Mammals

Members of the same species that are widespread in Africa can show marked differences in appearance, in particular colour and patterning, and may show differences in behavior due to the varying of landscape and availability of food. Examples of this include the plains' or Burchells' zebra and the giraffe.

Some animal species in Africa are bound to specific regions and are not widespread across the continent. There may be related species in other regions that have similar physical features but differ greatly in habitat and general habits. Examples of this are the Tragelephus family that includes the lesser and greater kudu, the sitatunga and the bushbuck and the zebra family that includes the plains zebra, mountain zebra and Grevy's zebra. In both these examples there is a big difference in physical appearance and colouring.

Patterns and colours

The Burchell's or plains zebra shows a variation in the striping across the continent. In the southern reaches of its range, South Africa, the patterns show a shadow brown stripe in the white stripe whereas in its northern ranges of East Africa the brown stripe is absent. The reason for this differing in colour is uncertain.

There are eight sub-species of giraffe on the African continent although there are moves afoot to re-classify some of the sub-species as separate species. These sub-species are classified due to their appearance and in some cases because of their isolation.

Giraffe patterning is a fascinating study of shapes and contrasts with the southern giraffe, the only giraffe in southern Africa, showing the greatest variation - a combination of jagged-edged and straight-lined shapes.

The Masai, Rothschild and reticulated giraffe of East Africa have very distinctive patterning with the rich bold patterns of the reticulated sub-species being the most dramatic of them all. The Thornicroft's giraffe of Zambia's Luangwa Valley, although showing a slight colour variation, is sub-classified due to its isolation from other giraffe.


Lions are of the most adaptable species in the animal kingdom, occurring across a wide range of habitats in Africa, from deserts to swamps. Although there is a variation in colouring and size across the various ranges the greatest differences come from the prey they survive on and, as in the cases of desert-dwelling lions, the ability to survive without physically drinking water.

The preferred prey of lions varies across the continent depending on availability and access. In some wilderness areas zebra are the chosen prey whereas in other areas it could be one of the antelope species. In general buffalo are the largest prey that lions hunt in many wilderness areas of Africa with giraffe also falling victim at times.


Elephants generally occur in well-watered areas across Africa but there are herds that have adapted to drier climes such as the Namib Desert in Namibia. How or why these elephants adapted to the harsh environment is not known. The desert elephants drink far less frequently than elephants from other areas and their food intake is not as wasteful.

The size of elephants across Africa varies according to the vegetation. Some of the smallest elephants in Africa are found in the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa. This is due to the level of nutrition in their diet in relation to the nutrition levels of the valley bushveld vegetation of the Addo region. The Addo elephants are also know for their diminished tusks, with females generally lacking tusks.

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