My views on the relative intelligence levels of the various animals out here oscillate wildly. I’ve seen lions execute a perfect strategic ambush that had to have involved forethought, yet I’ve also seen them perform acts that are so imbecilic, they could have resulted in the deaths or at least serious injury of a number of individuals, without there having been any potential benefit.

Yet it’s impala that I’ve been wondering about lately. Given the rut that we’ve been spectating over the past few weeks, they’ve obviously been high up on everybody’s viewing lists, but as far as intelligence goes, I doubt whether anyone has been ranking them very highly. Quite the opposite in fact, given how little attention the males pay to their surroundings while vying for the attention of females, and how many have fallen prey to the large predators of Londolozi.

An impala male gives off his typical roar during the rut. Photograph by Alex Jordan.

Yet while watching two males tussling this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder if they knew just what they were doing, and knew how to alleviate a certain amount of risk.

We’ve discussed the alarm calls of the various prey species before, and impalas feature prominently amongst the herbivores that tell us when a predator has been sighted. Leopards in particular, who rely largely on camouflage and the element of surprise to catch their prey, know the game is up when impalas see them and start sounding the alarm.
This was highlighted by a recent sighting of the Tamboti female, who we found as a direct result of the alarm calls of an impala herd. The leopard was walking along in typical fashion after being seen; tail held high, curled up over her back. Knowing she now had no chance of catching anything, she simply melted away into the bush.

Tamboti Leopard Vs Hyena Jt 6

The Tamboti female can only hunt successfully if she remains undetected.

Not 15 minutes later, we came across two fighting impala rams. Fairly regularly, between 10-second bouts of clashing horns, they would stop, stand erect, and sound an alarm. Not the rutting call that male impalas give at this time of year that can be confused with an alarm call, but the actual, proper, seen-a-leopard alarm snort. This of course attracted our attention, but each time the impalas had alarmed, they would then resume their head-butting efforts, so if there was a leopard there, they were being pretty blasé about it.

Rams locked in contest like this are incredibly vulnerable to predation.

I’ve seen this behaviour many, many times before though, and I’ve wondered, as I did now, whether or not these impala are onto something.
By stopping and giving off what is to all intents and purposes a real alarm, do the males make any would-be predator think that it’s been spotted? An alarm call is certainly enough to make a stalking cat drop flat into the long grass. Maybe it’s not enough to make it give up the hunt entirely, but it certainly causes a delay in proceedings.

Over the aeons, with so many male impala being preyed upon during the rut, have they evolved a system of crying wolf, specifically to ward off the wolf?

The penalty of failure; the Nhlanguleni female feeds on the remains of an impala ram who wasn’t paying close enough attention.

I don’t know. Perhaps those barks are just snorts of defiance at each other.
But it is quit a nice thought that one or two males may have just survived to try and breed another day simply by shouting the impala equivalent of “I’ve seen you”, and having the stalking leopard think it’s actually been seen, and move off.

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

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8 Comments

on Are Impalas Smarter Than We Think?

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Marinda Drake

I think that all animals are smarter than what us humans think they are. They would not have survived for thousands of years if they were not smart enough.

Mary Beth Wheeler

What an fun thought. I think they should be given more credit than they usually get!

Patricia Balsdon

Of course Impalas are smarter than we think they are – in fact, I think all animals are much smarter than we have given them credit for. We – human beings being told we have ‘dominion over the birds of the air ‘ etc., have never even bothered to wonder more about the amazing creatures with whom we share the planet. I think it’s time we did.

James Tyrrell

Funnily enough Patricia, yesterday afternoon, 24 hours after this post went out, we watched two male impalas do exactly this with the Nhlanguleni female, who was hiding in the bushes watching them. The impalas might have caught her scent, but there was no way they could have seen her. But they kept on alarming until eventually she figured she must have been spotted, and slunk off..

Michael Kalm

Fascinating speculation, James!

Callum Evans

Impala’s are definitely smarter than many people give them credit for. When you live in a place where so many predators hunt you (on land, in water and even from the air), then your survival strategies have to be smart.

Ididy Makovich

The problem with the question is that we are going to judge in comparison to humankind and one can argue that there are smart or not smart……Every behavior or situation that they encounter on daily basis, there will always be a way we would perceive them to have overcome such a situation….That’s what i think anyways.

James Tyrrell

Absolutely. Intelligence is a very relative term, and they probably have a type of intelligence that we can’t match, which is suited to their environment.

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