A pair of ong, curved and ridged antelope horns, on a black background.

This single pair of horns is now only the fifth confirmed specimen of the extinct bluebuck antelope ©Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

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Horns in the Natural History Museum's collection confirmed to be from extinct bluebuck antelope

Once found roaming the very southern edge of the African continent, the bluebuck antelope was hunted to extinction just 34 years after it was first scientifically described.

Within that tiny window of time, only four confirmed historical specimens were known to have made it into museums around the world. Now researchers have validated another, a pair of horns in the Natural History Museum’s collections. 

The bluebuck or blue antelope was the first large African mammal to go extinct in recent times.

Once found living in the grasslands along the southern coast of South Africa, it was driven to extinction by humans in around 1800. While closely related to two surviving antelopes, the sable and roan, the bluebuck was distinct having split from a last common ancestor some 1.5 million years ago.

As the name suggests, the bluebuck had a predominantly blue-grey coat that faded to a whitish colour on its belly. On its head it had white patches in front of its eyes, and a pair of large, ridged horns that swept back in an elegant curve. While these horns were typically smaller than those found on its relatives, they still reached a respectable length of about 50 centimetres.

But the likely scarcity of the bluebuck by the time Europeans first encountered it, and the speed at which it was made extinct, means that there are astonishingly few specimens of this antelope in museums around the world. Now a new study has used genetics to confirm that a pair of horns in the Natural History Museum’s collection is from the unfortunate species, bringing the total number of confirmed bluebuck specimens globally to five.

A historic drawing of a bluebuck antelope, showing it standing in a grassy plain.

There are only a few historic drawings of bluebuck, none of which are thought to be drawn from life. Image: Wikimedia commons

Roberto Portela Miguez is the Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals at the Natural History Museum, and was involved in this new study published in the journal Mammalian Biology.

‘This is one of the most tragic examples of extinction in my book,’ says Roberto. ‘It is surreal that there are only five bluebuck specimens that have been officially confirmed, but at least we’ve now got more genetic data to assess and learn what might have driven this species to extinction.’

‘Hopefully we can use this data to help with the conservation of other antelopes, like the sable or the roan.’

The rapid extinction of bluebuck

When the European colonisers arrived in South Africa the bluebuck was already likely a rare animal. Previous genetic studies on the few remaining specimens have shown that in the 1600s there were perhaps as few as 370 individuals surviving along the southern fringe of South Africa.

The first mention of the animal by the colonisers was in around 1679, while the first description of any detail didn’t appear until 1708. Even then, the first paintings of the antelope are thought to have been done not from life, but from memory, and perhaps using the few mounted skins in Europe as references. It would not be until 1766 that the antelope was scientifically described as a distinct species.

As a result, hardly anything is known about how the bluebuck behaved or what it looked like in life.

But fossil remains and rock paintings of the bluebuck suggest that the antelopes used to be found across a much bigger area of the southern coast, including the unique floral zone known as the fynbos. This is a belt of natural scrubland that is known for its exceptional degree of diversity, thought to be home to around 6,000 species of flowering plants found nowhere else on Earth.

A view of the fynos, with a low scrub stretching to the distance and beautiful purple and yellow flowers in the foreground.

The fynbos is a unique, highly diverse habitat only found on the southern edge of South Africa ©Shutterstock/Cathy Withers-Clarke

Evidence seems to suggest that the antelopes were grazing animals that migrated along the southern coast through the fynbos and perhaps up to Lesotho, as they followed the rains and the grasses. It has been hypothesised that as sea levels rose during the early Holocene around 10,000 years ago, these weather patterns were disrupted with a knock-on effect to the bluebuck migrations.

‘The bluebucks decline coincides with populations of other large mammals in that area, like quaggas, going down in numbers,' explains Roberto. 'So possibly by the time that European invaders arrived in South Africa there were probably very few animals left.'

'Europeans might have just tipped them over the edge, with activities such as farming and hunting, less than half a century after it was formally described.'

But despite humans likely having pushed the blue antelope over the edge into extinction, specimens in natural history collections are astonishingly rare. Historically, there were only thought to be four confirmed specimens in museum collections, made up of two mounted skins, skull fragments and one set of horns.

It has, however, been suggested that other bluebuck specimens are found in the Natural History Museum and the National Museums Scotland’s collections, but their exact species has been compounded by the remains of bluebuck having been frequently mixed up and confused with the closely related roan antelope.

 A picture of a roan antelope, showing its distinctive black "mask".

The roan antelope is a closely related species that still can be found in the grasslands of East Africa ©Shutterstock/paula french

To gain some clarity about this and increase the scarce information available for this species, the new study set out to sample specimens that were claimed to be bluebuck, but also look at the remains of roan antelope collected from South Africa pre-1800 in case those might actually be unknown specimens of the extinct animal hiding in plain sight.       

Genetic confirmation

By using ancient DNA techniques, which allows researchers to sequence the DNA from museum specimens, the team were able to build on a previous study that sampled other bluebuck specimens in Europe and sequenced both their mitochondrial and nuclear genome.

From this, they sampled around 10 antelope specimens from the Natural History Museum’s collection that were labelled as roan but had the potential to be bluebuck, along with another three specimens that were thought to be bluebuck (two from the Natural History Museum and one from the National Museums Scotland). 

The results found that out of all of these, only a single pair of horns from the Natural History Museum collection were from the extinct antelope. This brings the total number of confirmed bluebuck specimens and their sequenced genomes to just five.

A top down image of the horns in the natural history museum collection.

Looking into the genome of the bluebuck could provide clues to help protect the surviving roans and sable antelopes ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

While the sequencing of the extinct bluebuck genome could perhaps, in theory at least, allow people to clone or ‘de-extinct’ the antelope, Roberto thinks that any time and effort would be better placed studying its genome as this could help better understand its extinction. Lessons learnt from this will hopefully help to protect and preserve its surviving relatives like the sable and roan.

‘There are so many mammal species under pressure at the moment,’ says Roberto. ‘Instead, we should be investing more in unravelling the relationships and genetics of these species, so we can help with their conservation. At least we are fortunate to have these specimens so we can still learn from them.’

‘Sadly, the tragedy of the bluebuck is not unique as there are other species known only from a few museum specimens. Genetic data from museum collections can provide meaningful insight to prevent future extinctions and serve as a benchmark for the restoration of biodiversity.’

‘With 27% of mammals species threatened with extinction, it is paramount that we maximise this resource to help conservation turn the tide.’