Quasi-domestication in Gazella

There have been many historical attempts to domesticate both sheep (Ovis) and gazelles (Gazella).

What many naturalists may not realise is that several types of ostensibly wild gazelles seem to have originated, at least partly, by selective breeding in captivity.

The species/subspecies bilkis, dareshurii, erlangeri, farasani, hamishi and muscatensis seem never to have been found in wild populations, although three of these now occur free-range on small islands in the Red Sea or Persian Gulf (e.g. see https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Photographs-of-gazelles-from-the-Farasan-Islands-A-male-and-C-female-and-mainland_fig2_262386010).

I suspect that all are anthropogenically modified variants of the mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella), transported by humans to their locations and at least partly bred in captivity in the past.

Even in its original range (in the Levant), the mountain gazelle has long lived somewhat commensally with tolerant farmers because no truly wild situations have remained in the Biblical Lands for hundreds of years.

The main effects of quasi-domestication in the above gazelles seem to be darkened colouration (e.g. see https://awwp.alwabra.com/?p=1177 and https://awwp.alwabra.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Adult_Male_Erlangeri_Gazelles_01.jpg and https://www.biolib.cz/en/taxon/id726062/) and a reduction in the size of the brain.

Four North African species (cuvieri, dorcas, pelzelni and leptoceros) seem to have been kept in captivity, for example in oases in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Maghreb, for thousands of years. Probably in most cases the animals were caught as wild infants and hand-reared, to be kept as pets but not selectively bred.

However, an odd aspect of Cuvier's gazelle, in addition to a dark colouration in some populations, is that in some individuals there are irregular whitish markings on the face (see https://kaymeclark.photoshelter.com/image/I0000lvhyKY5PUks and https://www.biolib.cz/en/image/id315675/), reminiscent of the asymmetrical colouration so often produced inadvertently by domestication.

Certain traditions in India have long cared for the chinkara (Gazella bennettii), which lives somewhat commensally as well as often being raised as a pet. However, no aspects of colouration suggest that this species has been modified by this relationship.

Why did domestication of gazelles prove so unsuccessful that most naturalists assume them to be purely wild animals? Possibly because all gazelles, unlike all wild sheep, have a territorial social system, which limits their amenability to herding. None of the twelve species of domestic hoofstock originating in Eurasia have territorial wild ancestors.

Which leaves us with an odd thought. Had things turned out differently and Gazella domestica arisen in place of sheep, would the Bible have spoken of gazherds rather than shepherds?

Posted on April 10, 2021 11:21 AM by milewski milewski


The springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) has neither been domesticated nor kept as a pet in the way described for Gazella. However, it has been bred in farm enclosures to produce mutant forms, particularly a form which is dark brown except for a white face. What is interesting is that, as in Gazella, the overall effect is a darkening.

Posted by milewski about 3 years ago

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