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New at the Zoo: Dama Gazelle Calves

Cheetah Conservation Station keepers are celebrating a dama gazelle baby boom! Two young calves, Gustav and Amaya, recently made their debut. Learn all about the newest members of our herd from assistant curator Gil Myers.

How are the dama gazelle calves doing?

Our male and female dama gazelle calves are doing well, growing fast and becoming more independent by the day. Our male calf, Gustav, will be two months old Nov. 7, and he has a fearless and confident personality. As for our female calf, Amaya, her personality is still a bit of a mystery. She will turn one month old Nov. 9. At her age, it is normal for dama calves to be rather secretive and quiet. Over the next few weeks, she will become more comfortable exploring, and we will get a better sense of her personality.

Dama gazelle calves Gustav (left) and Amaya (right) explore their habitat at the Cheetah Conservation Station.

Dama gazelle calves Gustav (left) and Amaya (right) explore their habitat at the Cheetah Conservation Station.

How did Gustav and Amaya receive their names?

Dama gazelles are native to Chad, and Cheetah Conservation Station keepers wanted to select names that reflect the culture and language of that country. French and Arabic are the national languages of Chad, so we chose Gustav (French origin) for the male and Amaya (Arabic origin) for the female. Amaya means “night rain” in Arabic, which is fitting since both calves were born during storms here in Washington, D.C.

Dama gazelle calf Amaya

Dama gazelle calf Amaya crinkles her nose.

What is your favorite fact about dama gazelles?

They make an endearing ‘honk’ noise when alert to danger! A gazelle will suck air in through his or her nose until it has a crinkled or deflated look. When they release their air, the vocalization sound like a honk. Each individual sounds different, and the tone varies in length and pitch.

They do this behavior when they see something that causes concern. When one individual sees something and honks, the others will look in that direction. If they also sense danger, they will start honking as well to alert others in the herd.

Calves learn this behavior from a young age. They crinkle their noses and try to honk, but they barely make any noise. It is very cute!  

Dama gazelle Fahima and her female calf, born Oct. 9.

Dama gazelle calf Amaya and her mother, Fahima. She was born Oct. 9, 2018.

How do the calves spend their day?

When we first gave Gustav and Amaya access to the yard, they took advantage of all the space they had to roam and began running and stotting—a bouncy hop where all four hooves are off the ground. Gustav spends quite a bit of time with the adults, too, and is frequently out in the open. Amaya tends to do a behavior called “tuck and hide,” where she curls up on the ground in a pile of browse or hay. In the wild, calves do this behavior to hide from predators.

Both calves are starting to build social relationships with their herd members. Gustav and Amaya share the habitat with their mothers, 1-year-old sister, Asha, and 11-year-old grandmother, Adara. As they grow, we expect that they will interact with their herd more frequently. They are already quite curious and will approach the adults and sniff them. Occasionally, they will press their heads against the adults’ heads as if they are going to spar—a natural play behavior. The adults recognize that they are calves and will play carefully and gently. Sometimes, if they are not in the mood to play, they might nudge the calves a bit or just walk away.

What do they eat?

Dama gazelle calves typically nurse from their mothers for six to eight months. As the calves get older, the length and frequency of nursing sessions decreases. It is up to mom’s discretion as to how frequently her calf nurses. For example, Gustav’s mother, Zafirah, will sometimes walk away from her son when he is trying to nurse. When she does this, Gustav will walk over to Amaya’s mother, Fahima, to nurse. Sometimes she tolerates this, and sometimes she, too, walks away to ensure her daughter has enough milk.

The calves are already sampling some of the adults’ foods, including pellets and alfalfa. Dama gazelles are born with a full set of teeth, though as they age they will eventually lose those baby teeth, and their permanent adult set will grow in. Gustav and Amaya seem to like leafy browse (tree branches) and will nibble on the leaves and bark. We have also spotted them eating tree leaves that fall into their exhibit. Gustav is now eating more solids than nursing, and although Amaya is testing all food sources, she still relies most on her mother’s milk.

A zookeeper holds a newborn dama gazelle calf at the Smithsonian's National Zoo

Male dama gazelle Gustav was born Sept. 7, 2018.

Why does the Zoo breed this species?

Dama gazelles are critically endangered, and scientists estimate that less than 500 individuals remain in the wild. As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ species survival plan for dama gazelle, our goal is to help build up the population in human care. The North American population currently has more than 180 individuals. Down the road, it is possible that conservation organizations will reintroduce some of these animals back into protected areas in the wild. Our Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists assisted with a similar effort to reintroduce scimitar-horned oryx.  

Gustav at a few days old.

When is the best time to see Gustav and Amaya?

Come to the Cheetah Conservation Station on warmer days between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. for the best chance to see our calves. When the temperature dips below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the gazelles have access to a heated barn behind-the-scenes. They have the option of staying on exhibit or heading into the barn for warmth.

After 1 p.m., visitors can see our scimitar-horned oryx, Dakota and Emma Claire, in the yard that they share with the gazelles. As Gustav and Amaya get older, we will reintroduce the herd to the oryx and hope to exhibit them all together. The calves have met our Ruppell’s griffon vultures, Tuck and Natalie. At first, they were very curious about the vultures and Zafirah would chase them away if anyone got too close for comfort. Now, though, they are settled into the routine of sharing their exhibit.  

This article appears in the November 2018 issue of National Zoo News.