August 1, 2011
While walking through the Hall of Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History last week, I noticed a tiny deer-like creature near the zebras and wildebeest—it was called a Gunter’s dik-dik. I had never heard of such a creature, and I had to learn more.
There are four species of dik-dik, all native to the grasslands of southern Africa. They’re a kind of miniature antelope, with hooves and (on the males anyway) horns. Dik-diks grow to only a foot or so high at the shoulder, which means they can hide among the grasses, but they prefer places where they can see a fair distance. They’re herbivores that eat leaves, fruit, berries and plant shoots, which provide both sustenance and water.
Their predators are all familiar animals of the savannah: jackals, caracals, leopards, eagles, hyenas. Humans also kill them. The female’s alarm call (“zik-zik” or “dik-dik,” which gave them their name) can warn larger, more desirable game species that it’s time to flee.
Unlike other African antelope species, there are no herds of dik-diks. Dik-diks form monogamous pairs that stand guard over their own territory, marked out with dung and special gland secretions. They have only one offspring at a time; it will often stay with its parents until the next baby is born, at which point the parents chase the older sibling out of their territory.
Dik-diks have a couple of ways to beat the African heat. First, they’re noctural and sleep through the hot day when they would lose valuable water. And second, when they get really hot, dik-diks can undertake a kind of panting and pump blood through their elongated snouts where airflow and evaporation cool it down before it is pumped back into the body.
Though dik-diks are pretty small, they’re not the tiniest of African antelope. The smallest species is the royal antelope, which grows to only 10 inches tall at the shoulder (but it’s not nearly as cute as the dik-dik).
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.