Meet the okapi

Okapi standing in a field
Photo by Derek Keats. Retrieved from Flickr on 08-24-2023. Shared under CC BY 2.0.

Some weeks, I pick animals related to what’s going on in my life. Other weeks, I pick an animal that I think is cool.

This week is one of the later ones. I just think okapis are neat!

Okapis (Okapia johnstoni) are hoofed mammals found only in the rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are quite large, with male okapis averaging about 8 feet (2.5 meters) long and 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall at the shoulder. Females tend to be slightly taller than the males.

The name ‘okapi’ comes from the name given to it by the local Lese tribes – o’api. This combines two Lese words: oka, which means ‘to cut,’ and kpi, which refers to an arrow design resembling the stripes on an okapi’s legs.


Take a look at this picture of an okapi. What do you think it’s related to?

Okapi standing in profile
Photo by Raul654. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 08-24-2023. Shared under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Most people guess zebras. After all, okapis have a very distinctive, striped rump and are shaped like a horse!

But okapis aren’t related to zebras at all. Their stripes are instead an example of evolution independently coming up with the same solution to similar problems.

Okapi stripes serve two purposes. First, just like a tiger’s stripes, an okapi’s stripes provide some camouflage in the forest. As sunlight filters through the dense forest canopy, it creates stripes like an okapi’s, helping okapis hide.

Second, okapi stripes help calves follow their mothers in the dark, thick rainforest. Sometimes called “follow me” stripes, the stripes on an okapi’s legs make a bold pattern easy for calves to follow.

What are they?

Okapis aren’t related to zebras, so what are they?

It turns out that okapis are the only living relatives of giraffes. Their common ancestor is an animal known as Canthumeryx, who had an elongated neck. When the family tree split into two, giraffes steadily developed longer and longer necks. In contrast, okapis kept shorter legs and necks to deal with the dense underbrush in their rainforest homes. This lets them be able to swerve around tree trunks and dodge roots.

And if you look closer at an okapi’s face, you’ll see some similarities to giraffes. For instance, both animals have long, prehensile tongues useful for grabbing leaves off trees. Although an okapi’s tongue is technically shorter than a giraffe’s, it’s longer proportionally to their body. A 19-foot-tall giraffe has a tongue of around 20 inches, while an okapi can have a 14- to 18-inch-long tongue. An okapi is one of the only mammals that can lick its own ears!

An okapi using its long tongue to lick its back
Long tongues are great for cleaning. Photo by Terese Hart. Retrieved from Flickr on 08-24-2023. Shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Okapis and giraffes also both have large, upright ears and similar facial features. And just like giraffes, okapis drink water by splaying their legs and bending their knees to drink.

A little oily

Okapis have a beautiful, dense fur coat that feels like velvet. It’s also highly oily, so I wouldn’t recommend going around petting okapis! This oily coat helps keep okapis dry on rainy days, making any water slide right off their body.

In addition to this oily coat, okapis have a sticky foot. Each foot has a scent gland that leaves a tar-like substance on the ground wherever they walk. Why? As a way to mark their territory. Each okapi has a unique scent, so they can be identified by this tar-like substance. This means that by simply smelling the ground, an okapi can check if another okapi has been by recently and who exactly it was.


Okapis are generally quiet – females only make audible calls when they’re ready to breed.

But relatively recently, we’ve discovered that okapis are much more talkative than we knew. It turns out that they make infrasonic calls, sounds so low that humans can’t hear them.

Side view of a male okapi's head
Photo by Steve Wilson. Retrieved from Flickr on 08-24-2023. Shared under CC BY 2.0.

Why do they make these low sounds? They’re likely an adaptation for mothers to keep in contact with their offspring without alerting predators. Like us, the main okapi predator – leopards – can’t hear these infrasonic noises. This lets a foraging mother keep in contact with her calf without letting a leopard know there’s an okapi snack nearby.

Okapi calves also keep themselves safe by not pooping until they are between 4 and 8 weeks old. After all, it’s hard to know where a baby is if they aren’t leaving feces around for you to find!

And it’s hard for humans to find okapis, too. They are very secretive animals, and their large ears help them avoid creatures that might be looking for them. It also doesn’t help that the dense rainforest is hard to move through when searching for okapis. As a result, we don’t know precisely how many okapis are left in the wild. Still, their numbers are probably decreasing due to habitat loss. As is so often the case, preserving the forest where they live will go a long way in making sure okapis can continue thriving in their rainforest home.



San Diego Zoo

How Stuff Works

Animal Diversity Web

Okapi Conservation Project

National Geographic

Mental Floss

Maryland Zoo

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: