The Okapi: A striking fusion of appearances, yet a unique species

The Okapi A striking fusion of appearances, yet a unique species

There is no denying that at first glance, the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) may lead many to believe they’re observing an uncanny representation of a horse and a zebra. 

Its long neck and body, reminiscent of a horse, and the distinctive black and white stripes on its legs and rump akin to a zebra, contribute to this initial impression.

However, this remarkable creature, hidden away in the lush rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is not a crossbreed as it might appear but an entirely separate species with its own intriguing lineage.

Is the Okapi more like a horse, zebra, or giraffe?

In reality, the okapi, despite its outward zebra-like aesthetics, is the only extant relative of the giraffe (Giraffidae family). The shared attributes between the two species become more evident when looked at anatomically and genetically.

The first clue lies in their shared skull morphology. Okapi and giraffe have similar heads with elongated skulls and skin-covered horn-like protuberances called ossicones. The okapi has ossicones that distinguish it from horses and have a different shape than those of giraffes.

The okapi and giraffe have a common feature – a prehensile tongue for stripping leaves and buds from trees. The okapi’s tongue can reach up to 18 inches and is used for grooming and cleaning eyes and ears.

Okapi stripes
The Okapi tongue

The Okapi looks like a zebra but is more like a forest giraffe

Genetically, okapis share a significant portion of their DNA with giraffes. 

Appearance can be deceiving. As genetic analyses have confirmed that despite varying neck lengths and sizes, these creatures are closely related.

The physical differences between the okapi and giraffe have arisen mainly due to their different habitats and lifestyles. Giraffes have long necks for reaching acacia trees in the savannah. Meanwhile, okapis have adapted to the rainforest with a smaller, more robust body.

This unique creature, with its striking stripes and horse-like body, is far from being a mere blend of the familiar. While it may look like a horse-zebra crossbreed, its origin tells a different story, placing it squarely in the company of the long-necked giraffes as the sole living cousin.


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