By Ross Kettles
Much controversy, speculation and intrigue follow the quagga. Was Equus quagga quagga a distinct species, or merely a subspecies of the plains zebra, E. quagga, formerly E. quagga burchelli? What did they actually look like, and was their behaviour any different to the plains zebra?
Sadly, most early history of the quagga is lost. The first reliable records of the species only started appearing in the latter half of the 18th century. Prior to this, explorers and travellers simply referred to them as wild horses or mules.
The quagga’s extinction
Following European settlement in South Africa, a combination of extensive hunting and habitat loss, as the quagga competed with domesticated animals for food, led to their rapid decline and eventually they became extinct. A few breeding programmes in zoos in Europe were initiated, but were ultimately unsuccessful. The last fragmented wild population is documented as having lived in the Orange Free State in the mid 1800s, but because all zebra sub-species were referred to as quagga, uncertainty exists as to their actual physical attributes.
The last captive specimen died in a zoo in Amsterdam in 1883. Only one quagga, a mare, was ever photographed alive at the Zoological Society of London’s Zoo sometime between 1863 and 1870. Only 23 skins are known to exist today.
Early researchers recognised different subspecies of plains zebras as members of Equus quagga, though much confusion existed over which species were valid. Bear in mind that the likelihood exists that only skin specimens displaying aberrant patterns were preserved.
What science has uncovered
A 2004 study of skins and skulls instead suggested that the quagga was not a distinct species, but a subspecies of the plains zebra. In spite of these findings, many authors subsequently kept the plains zebra and the quagga as separate species.
Distinct coat pattern
A genetic study published in 2005 confirmed the subspecies status of the quagga. It showed that the quagga had little genetic diversity, and that it diverged from the other plains zebra subspecies only between 120 000 and 290 000 years ago, during the Pleistocene. Its distinct coat pattern perhaps evolved rapidly because of geographical isolation and/or adaptation to a drier environment. In addition, plains zebra subspecies tend to have less striping the further south they live, and the quagga was the most southern-living of them all.
Its coat pattern was unique among equids: zebra-like in the front but more like a horse in the rear. It had brown and white stripes on the head and neck, brown upper parts and a white belly, tail and legs. The stripes were boldest on the head and neck and became gradually fainter further down the body, blending with the reddish brown of the back and flanks, until disappearing along the back.
It appears to have had a high degree of polymorphism, with some having almost no stripes and others having patterns similar to the extinct southern population of Burchell’s zebra, where the stripes covered most of the body except for the hind parts, legs and belly. It also had a broad dark dorsal stripe on its back. It had a standing mane with brown and white stripes.
Another quagga first
The quagga was the first extinct animal to ever have its DNA examined and naturalist Reinhold Rau’s research in quagga kick-started the Quagga Project in 1987 in South Africa.
The objective was to create a quagga-like zebra population by selectively breeding for a reduced stripe pattern from plains zebra stock, a process known as “breeding back”. The eventual goal being to re-introduce them to the quagga’s former range.
To differentiate between the quagga and the zebras of the project, they refer to them as “Rau Quaggas”. The founding population consisted of 19 individuals from Namibia and South Africa, chosen because they had reduced striping on the rear body and legs. The first foal of the project was born in 1988.
The Nuwejaars Wetlands SMA’s involvement
On the Agulhas Plain, close to Bredasdorp, the 46 000-hectare Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management hosts one of the biggest Rau Quagga populations in the country. The farmers involved in this venture joined the project in 1991 already. With subsequent relocations over the years, the area now hosts 3 viable herds.
Interestingly, observations on the Nuwejaars suggest that environmental factors such as weather and vegetation may also play a role in polymorphism, as subsequent foals, from the same mare and stallion often exhibit stronger quagga characteristics than its preceding sibling.
Will initiatives like this “bring” the quagga back? We will never know for sure, but it will bring back individuals, and eventually herds which will closely resemble the extinct quagga. One has to acknowledge though, that the E. quagga genes have been here all along.