Do Waterbuck Have a Social Structure?

Territorial Bulls

©Robert Hofmeyr
Waterbuck bulls are very territorial. Because they are always found near water, they are able to secure a resource-rich territory and remain sedentary without ill effect to themselves. Females move in their small, 2 - 10, herds between different bulls’ territories, visiting the most favourable ones more frequently, i.e. the ones with the best access to good grazing and drinking water. Bulls will herd the females and attempt to keep them in their territories for mating purposes. This social system is referred to as a harem.

Waterbuck males advertise their status as the owner of a territory by standing in an obvious position with the head held high. The white marks around his face emphasize his serious demeanour. From the side, his thick neck is a caution to would-be contenders of his strength. The waterbuck bull’s horns are used to good effect as weapons against intruders and waterbuck fight more frequently than other antelope, which often results in death. Remarkably, bulls do sometimes tolerate younger bulls, called satellite males, in their territory so long as they remain submissive to the territorial bull. These bulls do however assist with territorial defence. Sometimes these individuals may stand to inherit the territory should something happen to the dominant bull.

Bachelor Groups

©Karl Svendsen
Young males band together in bachelor groups. They have no chance of securing territories for themselves until they are in the region of six years old and banding together means they are afforded better safety from predators. They have to show submissiveness when in the vicinity of territorial bulls so as to pass through the territories of other males in order to get to food and water. Interestingly, youngsters will join a bachelor herd at less than a year old as the territorial males will not tolerate the young bulls amongst the herds after they have been weaned. Within the bachelor group, a hierarchy is established through pushing contests. The older and therefore larger animals are always dominant. No old bulls are found in bachelor groups. From sexual maturity, they are territorial or in old age, solitary.

By Megan Emmett