The quagga (Equus quagga quagga) is an extinct species of zebra with distinct markings – a yellowish-brown body colour with dark stripes on its head, neck, and shoulders only. DNA analysis on quagga skins has shown that the quagga was not actually a unique species of zebra, but rather a subspecies of the plains zebra (Equus quagga).
Quaggas lived in vast herds across the arid plains of Southern Africa until they were hunted to extinction by humans in the 1870s. There are records of quaggas grazing in large mixed herds with other zebras, wildebeest, hartebeest, and ostriches. The quagga’s range was the grassy plains and drier parts of the Karoo and Southern Free State in South Africa, stretching as far as the Orange River in the west and the Vaal River in the east.
Quaggas were named by the Hottentots, being an onomatopoeia of the zebra’s distinct ‘kwa-ha-ha’ call. The African tribe actually tamed quagga to use as equine watchdogs!
What did a quagga look like?
Although the quagga is an extinct plains zebra subspecies, it looked quite different from the zebra species alive today. Only one living quagga was ever photographed (above) – a mare housed at London Zoo, where four or five pictures were taken of it in 1870.
The colour of the head, neck, and upper parts of the body was a reddish-brown, with irregular dark brown bands and stripes. These stripes were stronger on the head and neck and gradually faded out behind the shoulder. Running down the center of the back was a broad, dark stripe – much like an ass. The belly, legs, and tail were a greyish white with no stripes. (Want to know why zebras have stripes?)
A contemporary report from Rev JG Wood’s 1853 Illustrated Natural History states that:
“The QUAGGA looks at first sight like a cross between the common wild ass and the zebra, as it only partially possesses the characteristic zebra-stripes, and is decorated merely upon the hind and fore-parts of the body. The streaks are not so deep as they are in the zebra, and the remainder of the body is brown, with the exception of the abdomen, legs, and part of the tail, which are whitish-grey.
There are an estimated 23 preserved quagga skins in existence today at museums around the world. The Breeding Back Blog has spent some time researching these, and sketched a number of variations of these quagga skins, as seen below.
While the research gives a very good idea of variations in the colour pattern, knowing that the exact tones are correct is less certain, as the skins are all from 130 years ago or more and have likely been bleached over time. Nonetheless, the picture shows that were some significant differences in markings between quagga specimens.
How the quagga became extinct
Quaggas were abundant in South Africa in the 1840s. When British and Dutch settlers first encountered quaggas the native Hottentots used the name ‘quagga’ for all zebras, and true quaggas (Equus quagga) were regarded as just one zebra among many.
Like other grazing mammals in South Africa, the quagga was hunted for its valuable meat and hide. South African farmers and settlers also hunted quagga as game, as it was seen as competition to their own domesticated livestock of sheep and goats. By the mid-1800s settlers and farmers were game hunting quagga on a huge scale.
Few people realized that the quagga was distinct from other zebras and needed some form of protection until it was too late. The last wild quagga was probably killed in the 1870s, leading to the extinction of the zebra sub-species. It was yet another species hunted to extinction by humans.
The last known captive quagga died in Amsterdam Zoo on 12 August 1883, having been exhibited there since 1867. So the story goes, Amsterdam Zoo sent a request to ‘send more quaggas,’ but there were none left in the wild.
Are quaggas making a comeback?
In 1987 a South Africa taxidermist called Reinhold Rau set up the Quagga Project, with the aim of using selective breeding to bring back the quagga from extinction and reintroduce it into reserves in its former habitat.
The project is aiming to retrieve the genes responsible for the quagga’s characteristic markings by selectively breeding a new quagga (to be called Rau quagga after the project founder) with six distinct characteristics:
- Decreased body stripes
- Body stripes not extending to the ventral midline
- A base chestnut colour on unstripped, upper parts of the body
- Unstriped legs
- Unstriped tail
- Reddish muzzle
With each new generation of foals, these distinct colourings have indeed become stronger and more defined. Six animals have reached Rau quagga status, and are considered a success by the project’s own criteria. Once this number reaches 50 there are plans for the herd to live together in one reserve.
The project is not without its critics, with some ecologists pointing out that the team are simply using selective breeding to create different looking zebra, with none of the quagga’s behaviours or ecological adaptations. This is indeed true, but there’s no doubting that the Quagga Project is increasing the diversity of genes and game in South Africa, so in our view is to be applauded.
And that’s your lot for the unique quagga. Do you have any information on this extinct zebra you’d like to share? Please do join in using the comments section below!