A four-horned flash of gold

January 06, 2016 12:00 am | Updated September 22, 2016 10:13 pm IST

Rather running for their life, these ungulates prefer to stay still and unnoticed, when a predator is near.

Who would dare play ‘ statue!’ with a predator, that too a predator no less than a leopard? I wouldn’t, and neither would I recommend this to anyone else, unless you are a four-horned antelope living in a tropical dry forest. As a small ungulate about the size of an ordinary stray dog, the four-horned antelope (4HA from now on) prefers to freeze and stay unnoticed when a predator is near, rather than run for its life.

It is a calculated risk. The 4HA doesn't live in groups, so there are only one or two sets of eyes on the watch for danger. It's not like running is obviously best – it takes energy to run and time to cool down; and predators run fast too! So the 4HA has learnt over millions of years of evolution to avoid being caught by staying still as long as the predator is more than a whiff away. Its plain golden-brown coat helps it remain invisible in the grasses and bushy undergrowth.

Lethal horns

The 4HA is found only in India and parts of Nepal, and is the only animal in the world which is decorated with two distinct pairs of horns, grown only by adult males. The first pair of horns grows between the ears, and the second grows above the eyebrows. Females and fawns do not have any horns. The horns are sharp as an arrow and can cause serious injury to any opponent. Perhaps because of their lethal nature, the horns are not much used in fights. Instead the 4HA males do combat by kneeling and interlocking their necks, just like their closest cousins the nilgai, which are 15 times larger.

Fussy eaters

Being rather shy, the 4HA is seldom seen and it stays well away from people. It is perhaps a bit fussy about what it eats, for it only likes fruits, flowers, fresh leaves and pods. These are most often plucked directly from bushes; but sometimes a foraging troop of monkey friends drops a feast on the forest floor. This fussy eating habit makes it choose only those areas that are rich in plant species. Just like the seasonal vegetables at the local market keep changing every few days, the supply of flowers and fruits from trees keeps changing through the year. If some tree species are cut and removed, the 4HA may need to look for a new home to prevent starving. Because the 4HA depends so closely on the diversity of plants in its habitat, its presence or absence is considered to be an indicator of the health of the floral diversity of tropical dry deciduous forests of India and Nepal.

Ungulates are mammals that walk on the tips of their toes and include a wide range of animals from elephants to rhinos, horses, deer and antelopes

The four-horned antelope is the only living antelope with four distinct horns – all others have two

It weighs about 20 kg and stands about 60cm at shoulder height

An ancient species like the nilgai, it is considered to be the ancestor of cows

They are found in tropical dry deciduous forests across India and parts of southern Nepal

Although not considered endangered, they are classified as vulnerable in the IUCN red data book and come under schedule I in the Wildlife Protection Act of India

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