White-bearded Wildebeest

White-bearded Wildebeest

Connochaetes taurinus

White-bearded wildebeest are one of the most iconic long-distance migratory species in the world, escaping resource limitation by constantly being on the move. Often referred to as gnu, common or blue wildebeest, their conservation status is complicated. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) consider wildebeest to be a species of Least Concern. This status, however, relates to the ~1.3 million wildebeest that roam across the Serengeti Plains in Tanzania, moving with annual fluctuations in rainfall that impact the quality and quantity of forage available. Across neighboring ecosystems in Kenya where much of our research is focused, wildebeest have experienced widespread and precipitous declines, declining by >90% over the past 40-50 years.

Facts

Length: 1.5-2.4 m (5 to 8 ft)

Weight: 115-280 kg (250 to 650 lbs)

Conservation Status: Least Concern

Tracking

Regarded as an ecological keystone, wildebeest impact nearly every aspect of savannah grassland ecology, from local biodiversity to grassland-tree dynamics. Wildebeest also form the foundation for a robust tourism industry, especially in Kenya and Tanzania, with hundreds of thousands of visitors returing annually to observe the impressive spectacle of mass migration. For these reasons and others, Smithsonian scientists are studying wildebeest ecology and movement patterns, with concern that a loss or severe reduction in the abundance of this species will have widespread and long-lasting effects.

Surprisingly, little is known about the movements of individual wildebeest, with only three studies to date focused specifically on the movements of wildebeest across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. Our team of scientists are using movement data, collected via GPS tracking devices and from unmanned aerial systems, to investigate how wildebeest respond to threats across this ecosystem. A primary focus of our research is the evaluation of habitat connectivity and the importance of collective movement behavior.

Eastern White-bearded Wildebeest Connochaetes [taurinus] albojubatus https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

In collaboration with Colorado State University, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and the African Conservation Centre (ACC), we tracked 15 adult wildebeest from 2010-2013, with animals moving east to west between the Loita and Mara Plains and south through Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Further details on this dataset, with links to the movements of each individual wildebeest, can be found on the Gnu Landscapes website. Since this time, we have collaborated with researchers from KWS and the University of Glasgow to fit 5 wildebeest with GPS collars and are currently preparing to fit an additional 6 wildebeest in 2021. These data are providing an important baseline to evaluate historic levels of habitat connectivity, with an increased ability to assess how animals are responding to current threats, like increasing levels of fencing that threaten to bisect historic migratory pathways.

Dr. Grant Hopcraft (University of Glasgow) working with the Kenya Wildlife Service field veterinarian team to fit a GPS collar on an adult female wildebeest in the Maasai Mara ecosystem

The climate is expected to shift across East Africa in the coming decades, with current data showing that annual precipitation is increasing and becoming more variable. Ambient temperature is also increasing in comparison to previous decades, driving evapotranspiration of valuable water sources. These changes will likely require wildebeest to move further afield to obtain the resources required for survival, putting additional stress on animals, especially as anthropogenic barriers to movement increase across the landscape. By developing partnerships with local and international organizations, we have joined a multi-institutional collaboration called the One Mara Research Hub, which aims to study landscape change and use animal movement data to inform local conservation decision-making processes.

Wildebeest movement patterns

Female white-bearded wildebeest fitted with GPS collars moving between the Mara and Loita Plains across the Greater Mara Ecosystem, Kenya.

Meet the Team

Tom Akre, Ph.D.

Program Scientist
Working Land and Seascapes
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)
Conservation Ecology Center
National Zoological Park

Molly Dodge

Program Manager
Working Land and Seascapes, Conservation Commons
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)
Conservation Ecology Center
National Zoological Park

Lacey Hughey, Ph.D.

Ecologist, MoL Program Manager
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)
Conservation Ecology Center
National Zoological Park

Peter Leimgruber, Ph.D.

Center Head, Conservation Biologist
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)
Conservation Ecology Center
National Zoological Park

Jared Stabach, Ph.D.

Ecologist, MoL Program Coordinator
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)
Conservation Ecology Center
National Zoological Park

Resources

Scholarly Articles

Stabach, J.A., G. Wittemyer, R.B. Boone, R.S. Reid, and J.S. Worden. (2016). Variation in habitat selection by white-bearded wildebeest across different gradients of human disturbance. Ecosphere 7(8): 1-17.

Stabach, J.A., R.B. Boone, J.S. Worden, and G. Florant. (2015). Habitat disturbance effects on the physiological stress response in resident Kenyan white-bearded wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus). Biological Conservation 182: 177-186.

Collaborators

Our Sponsors

The Ohrstrom Family Foundation