“I think there’s something wrong with an animal I saw on the pathway here,” a guest said to me on the Granite Camp deck a few mornings ago. “It’s one of those male nyala and he’s walking around in such a strange pose. He looks like he’s pulled a muscle”. I laughed, immediately understanding what this concerned guest was referring to. Despite appearances, the nyala bull he had seen was in the middle of an intense battle with a rival.

Nyala bulls have a rather strange way of fighting though. It looks more like a slow motion waltz than it does a fight.

nyala bulls, lateral display, granite camp

Two nyala bulls perform a lateral display at the entrance to Granite Camp. This behaviour can seem rather bizarre if you don’t know the reasons behind it.

They circle each other, with their faces trained on the ground but keep a beady eye on their opponent by surrepticiously using their peripheral vision. They circle each other broad side in a lateral display, attempting to make themselves appear as big as possible. They fluff up their tails and the dorsal manes on their back, whilst arching their heads forward with horns posied. It is in this rather contorted posture that they then deliberately circle one another, slowly high stepping their bright yellow legs as they go.

Have a look at the footage below to get a sense of what I’m referring to.

This is often done in the presence of females and in the hope that these potential mating partners will be watching to see who comes out tops. Typically the male who loses will drop his mane and wander off to groom or feed in a rather sheepish manner, appearing to have forgotten about the fight altogether. The winner will keep his hair puffed up for a while longer, making sure everyone is sure of who’s boss. It’s this male that will then be awarded the mating rights.  The question is why they do this long and involved waltz instead of fighting and just being done with it?

nyala bull, lateral display

A male nyala wanders off, dropping his mane and lifting his head back up after losing the dominance display. After shaking himself off, he will usually begin to groom or feed, making it appear as though he has forgotten about the standoff altogether. The winning opponent maintains his pose for a while longer, making sure that everyone knows who has come out tops.

The reason is that should these bulls lock horns, the fight can turn savage and even result in fatalaties. Why do this when a peaceful solution, that expends less energy, is available?

In fact prior to the lateral display described above, these bulls may be seen digging at soil or thrashing in bushes with their horns. This bush-thrashing serves as a display to on-lookers of the male’s strength. Males may also pack mud onto or carry foliage around on their horns as this self-adornment draws attention to and accentuates their horns. These are peaceful intimidation techniques done to deter the opponent before entering into the long and involved lateral display.

nyala bull

Can you see the dried mud on the horns of this bull? Male antelope are thought to gouge their horns into mud, not only to display their strength but also to make their horns appear bigger than they really are. This male is also carrying evidence of having thrashed his horns in bushes, attempting to intimidate his rival before doing the lateral display or locking horns.

If you think about it, most species use tactics such as this in varying degrees. Lions and leopards roar and scent mark, elephant bulls gouge their tusks into the ground and even birds like Egyptian geese honk loudly and stand with wings outspread to make themselves appear as big as possible before a fight actually occurs. When your survival is reliant on you being able hunt for yourself or move about uninjured then it’s best to do everything in your power not to fight before you absolutely have to.

A Matshipiri male lion roars on an early winter’s morning. These animals expend a lot of energy patrolling their territories, roaring and scent-marking. This serves to warn other males of territorial borders so that the lions do not come across each other unexpectedly, forcing them to fight unnecessarily. It is typically only if a male is wanting to challenge a rival that he will enter his territory and make the opponent aware of his presence.

As is so often the case with Nature, we can never really know for sure though. Maybe it just is that nyala bulls are lovers not haters and they dance instead of fight because they prefer to make peace rather than war…

Have you ever seen this behaviour before and if so, what was your take on it?

About the Author

Amy Attenborough

Media Team

Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

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10 Comments

on Why Do Nyala Bulls Display Instead of Fighting?

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Callum Evans

I have actually seen this behaviour among a herd of nyala that I saw over 2 days in the Waterberg. It was the very beginning of the rainy season in 2016 and there were three males among the females and calves that were doing these displays. I knew what the purpose of these displays were, so it was fascinating to actually see it happen in front of me. I didn’t know that they plastered their horns with mud though, I thought only topi and tssessebe did that. Come to thinkit, almost every single animal on the planet (from giraffe-necked weevils to great white sharks and humpback whales) prefer to posture and display rather than engage in conflict (smart move).

Marinda Drake

Interesting blog Amy. I have witnessed this behaviour before but always thought the bulls were “fighting”.

Darlene Knott

I have never seen this behavior! They are such beautiful animals. Now I will be watching every male Nyala hoping he will begin the ‘dance’! He almost looks like he is stalking something in the video. Thanks so much for writing about this, Amy!

Lucie Easley

The Nyala is a beautiful creature. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all conflicts could be settled with a waltz?

Amy Attenborough

I totally agree Lucie!! Are there any other animals you think we could learn valuable lessons about peaceful resolution from?

Denise Vouri

That was a wonderful description of the posturing of the Nyala males. While staying at Phinda we witnessed this behavior- a 15 minute standoff between two large males whilst a few females grazed off to the side, pretending not to see what was going on.

By the way, why am I prevented from commenting after I respond to two or three blogs? I have to log in again and sometimes the logon doesn’t work. Just annoying ……

Amy Attenborough

Hi Denise. Thanks so much for the comment! That is very strange that you’re having to log in repeatedly. I’ll look into it for you and see what we can do to help!

Kiki Aldonas

I saw a couple of males engaged in this outside my room at Varty a month ago. I assumed they were pooping and/or in extreme pain from the way they were hunched up and their exaggerated and labored movements. Glad to know that wasn’t the case. :0)

Amy Attenborough

Hahah Kiki! Well I’m glad that’s all cleared up for you now 🙂 What were some of your highlights from your stay here?

Judy Hayden

That was every interesting information. Thank you. Now Lets hope that people can learn some of this, it’s better and safer not to fight, behavior. I know I’m dreaming.

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