What is a dik-dik?

Damara dik-dik in Etosha National Park, Namibia

Dik-dik are one of Africa’s most unusual antelope. They are tiny and adorable animals, barely large enough to poke their heads above the grass.

They are so small it is very hard to actually spot one. Yet they do provide one of the cutest encounters you will have on an African safari.

Although they look like antelope, dik-dik are completely different from Africa’s other antelope species. Their name is unusual enough. In this article we celebrate these beautiful and curious creatures.

Just how small is a dik-dik?

Mature dik-dik only measure 30-40 cm in height. That’s the length of a standard ruler. During the rainy season they have to move territories because the grass gets so high they can’t see (honestly 🙂 ).

Weighing in at only 2-6 kg they are not much heavier than a Christmas turkey. You could pick one up with a single hand, except that is not going to happen because dik-dik can sprint at an incredible 40 km/h.

Despite being nowhere close to the largest antelope species in Africa, dik-dik are not actually the smallest. That honour goes to the royal antelope of West Africa, an animal that grows to 25 cm and is nowhere near as cute.

Why the strange name?

Female dik-dik in Samburu

The double-barrelled name may seem bizarre at first. It’s actually one of the most logical names in the entire animal kingdom.

Dik-dik are named after the sound they make. This onomatopoeia represents the whistling warning sound predominantly made by females. It is a high-pitched shrill, but whether it should be translated as “dik-dik” is open to interpretation. Have a listen for yourself!

Understand the four dik-dik subspecies and where they live

While they all make the same call and are all undeniably small and cute, there are four subspecies.

Around half a million Guenther’s dik-dik live in the shrubs of Kenya, Somalia and Kenya. This species is a grazer and can be distinguished by a reddish-brown coat.

Kirk’s dik-dik are the most common subspecies and are resident in Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Namibia and Angola. The IUCN reports that their population could be over 1 million. These dik-dik are desert-adapted and take much of their water directly from vegetation.

Silver dik-dik are the smallest of them all and only weigh 2-3 kg. They occupy southern Ethiopia and Somalia and their population is unknown.

Salt’s dik-dik are very similar to their silver cousins and live in the desert regions of Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Eritrea.

Dik-dik don’t live in herds

Pair of dik-dik in the Masai Mara

Almost every African antelope bands together in a herd. Larger herds are advantageous as there is safety in numbers. More sentinels can keep guard and if lions come to attack they can only eat one out of many.

Dik-dik are completely different. They live in pairs and are one of the most romantic animals on the planet.

Dik-dik are monogamous and have lifelong partners

As the saying goes, two is company and three is a crowd. Dik-dik are so dedicated to having alone time that they even chase away their offspring.

Mothers are responsible for telling their daughters to leave and fathers must chase off the males. This happens before the baby dik-dik has reached eight months of age!

Rather than swanning around searching for mates, these tiny antelope are monogamous and stay with a single partner until death do us part.

Some researchers argue that dik-dik choose to be monogamous because of the dangers associated with finding a mate. That doesn’t add up. Many male antelope will fight to the death in the hope of becoming dominant and getting the chance to mate. Maybe dik-dik simply have amorous souls.

Just about every predator can feed on dik-dik

Black-backed jackal with rear end of a dik-dik in its mouth

Dik-dik are so incredibly small that they are an easy meal for a huge variety of predators.

Lions are the only large carnivores that don’t usually hunt them. The king of the savannah needs to consume an average of 35-50 kg of meat per week so a 3 kg dik-dik is hardly even a snack.

Leopards and cheetahs will hunt these tiny antelopes, as will caracals, jackals, wildcats, servals and hyenas. There is an added threat from the air. Dik-dik are so small that they are a popular food of eagles.

The benefits of a life just for two

Many African animals have a strict breeding season with mating rights based on size and dominance. For example, the largest hippo will end up with an entire harem of females. Or a large Cape buffalo will enjoy one season mating with the herd, but will then retire to veteran status and never breed again.

Dik-dik can breed continuously and a pair can time their newborn to coincide with the best conditions in their territory.

Their monogamous relationship is built entirely on trust. One of the couple is always on lookout as the other grazes. Studies show that the larger the herd the less vigilant the antelope. Every antelope leaves the lookout duty for everyone else. So when you have no natural defence it makes sense to stay as a couple.

Dik-dik mark their territory with tears, not urine

Dik-dik mark their territory by releasing a special tear from a black spot near their eyes

Most animals mark their territories by urinating. This gives off a special scent to ward off rivals. Still it is quite unnecessary for pet dogs and cats to be peeing all down your street.

In sharp contrast, dik-dik bury their heads into the grass and release a special tear from a black spot below their eyes. This sticky preorbital glandular fluid cannot be smelled by human nostrils but conveys everything necessary to other dik-dik.

The toilet-trained antelope

Even though they live monogamously, males still need to defend their partners against rivals. Plus, couples need their space so it’s not uncommon to have territorial border disputes.

It is rare for dik-dik to fight. Instead they show off by building up sizeable heaps of dung. The higher the dung the more impressive the couple, so these crafty pairs get a head start by leaving their faeces on top of elephant or buffalo dung.

Almost every other African animal just let’s go of their bowels wherever they are. Some even do it while they are walking! Dik-dik are toilet-trained and keep their territory clean, by depositing their excrement all in one place.

Adapted and evolved for desert environments

Damaraland dik-dik in its natural habitat

Dik-dik occupy arid shrubland and desert, areas where there are less natural predators. They can survive without water, which is pretty much essential because such a small animal wouldn’t last long at a crowded waterhole.

Instead of waterholes, dik-dik take most their water from succulents and lush foliage, meaning they extract water directly from their food.

Naturally they avoid the hottest part of the day. Most of their feeding takes place during the night and during the hottest months they will become nocturnal.

A special form of rapid nasal panting means dik-dik breathe without losing moisture through their exhaled air. These remarkable antelopes can also lower their metabolic rate and adjust their body temperature based on the conditions.

An abundant antelope that’s difficult to find

Perfectly camouflaged male dik-dik

Africa’s other abundant antelope are almost impossible to miss. You can’t visit Tanzania without encountering wildebeest and it wouldn’t be a Southern Africa safari without springbok.

But even though there are over 1.5 million dik-dik, they are one of Africa’s rarest sights. Not only are they incredibly small, their fur coats provide perfect camouflage with dry season vegetation.

They rest through the middle of the day by lying in the grass, concealed from the world.

Still, dik-dik should be on your wish list when going on an African safari. While all the talk is of the famous big five, this remarkable antelope proves small animals can provide just as much enchantment.

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