Is the sable antelope the only ungulate - indeed mammal - that advertises its penis with black-and-white punctuation?

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In the sable antelope (Hippotragus niger,, the presence of the penis is visually unmistakable in adult males.

This is because the tip of the preputial sheath ( is covered with blackish hairs. This is offset by the adjacent surface of the belly, which is broadly white in crisp contrast with the dark of the flanks.

The following shows that the colouration in question is apparent - like an exclamation mark under the belly - even at some distance:

The preputial colouration seems congruent with the overall boldness, in dark/pale contrast, of the colouration of the whole figure. The pattern is part of the year-round masculine self-advertisement in the sable antelope.

This punctuation of the prepuce is the most reliable guide to the sex of the individual, in a species in which fully mature females can emulate males in all other aspects of colouration (

The preputial pigmentation facilitates the differentiation of the sexes in extant spp. of Hippotragus. This is true despite the remarkable emulation of other male features in females of these and other hippotragin bovids (

The following shows how easily mature females of the southern sable antelope (Hippotragus niger niger) can be distinguished from males, despite a lack of sexual dimorphism in the rest of the colouration:


At first consideration, it may seem unremarkable that a large mammal advertises its masculinity in this pointed way.

However, on closer examination it turns out that the sable antelope is likely to be unique in this respect.

It is true that the preputial sheath is also dark-tipped in the roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus, and and and

However, this is of limited conspicuousness ( and and, partly because the function of the pale pelage on the belly is categorically different.

In the roan antelope, the ventral surface of the torso is countershaded, in keeping with an overall postcranial inconspicuousness of the figure in full profile.

By contrast, in the sable antelope the same surface accentuates the boldness of the colouration, to the degree of qualifying as a bleeze (

The crucial difference, then, between the sable antelope and the roan antelope is that only in the former does the preputial contrast form part of a bleeze.

Furthermore, the sable antelope exceeds the roan antelope (and all other hippotragins) in sexual dimorphism. For example, can readers tell the sex of the following specimen of the roan antelope:

In the remaining two genera and six spp. of hippotragins, there is only a trace of the pattern.

In the gemsbok (Oryx gazella), there is merely a hint of emphasis ( and

Among alcelaphin bovids, the bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus pygargus) resembles the sable antelope in the darkness of the flanks and the crisp demarcation of a conspicuous white belly ( However, neither this nor any other alcelaphin shows any emphasis of the prepuce.

Among reduncin bovids, the most bodly-coloured forms are

However, once again, in both cases, the prepuce is not accentuated, so that the presence of a penis is not advertised.

Among rupicaprin bovids, some views of chamois (Rupicapra spp.) show a narrow preputial tassel ( and and and and and

Furthermore, the northern chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra, tends to be conspicuously dark-and-pale in winter pelage (
and and

However, the tassel in question

Bisons - which are bovin bovids - are another example of advertisement of the penis by means of a tassel ( and Furthermore, this can be a conspicuous part of the dark ventral silhouette of the figure.

However, in Bison there is no dark/pale contrast in the ventral pelage, suggesting that the main mode of advertisement, as in Rupicapra, is olfactory.

In African buffaloes (Syncerus, and, the tassel is sparse, but the preputial sheath is associated with a small abdominal dewlap.

When adult males of Syncerus micturate, this pendulous structure tends to twitch visibly. However, there is no dark/pale accentuation.

Turning now from the family Bovidae to the family Cervidae:

A preputial tassel occurs in some deer, e.g. the fallow deer (Dama dama, and and In the rutting season, this conspicuously twitched in masculine display (


  • the darkness of this tassel seems to be owing to staining by urine and/or secretions, rather than pigmentation (, and
  • the function of the tassel seems to be mainly olfactory.

In the red deer (Cervus elaphus, and and, the prepuce has similar position and twitching to that in the fallow deer. However, the tassel is too short to be conspicuous.

In the wapiti (Cervus canadensis, and, the prepuce is located in a relatively anterior position, as in various bovids.

However, there is no preputial tassel, and any visual display is merely a matter of subtle twitching. The following ( shows this as the animal micturates on itself for olfactory advertisement.


Several spp. of primates have conspicuous colouration on the penis and/or prepuce ( and and and and

However, in primates,


A distinctly dark-pigmented but short-haired preputial tip seems to be unique to Hippotragus.

Even in this genus, it may have been absent in the recently-extinct bluebuck (Hippotragus leucophaeus,

The most convergent species, in this respect, is the northern chamois. This rupicaprin also resembles the sable antelope in having

  • sharp horns, designed for inflicting injury rather than as a form of adornment for ritual sparring,
  • conspicuously dark colouration overall, albeit only in winter,
  • conspicuously dark-and-pale markings on the face, reminiscent of aposematic colouration,
  • minimal sexual dimorphism in horns and colouration,
  • retention of adolescent males in the maternal group up to the age of 2-3 years, and
  • a pugnacious demeanour relative to most other ruminants.


The distinctive genital advertisement of the sable antelope has been in plain view since European explorers first encountered the species.

However, nobody seems to have noticed that this feature is functionally unique to this species.

This may be because such an appreciation would depend on

  • applying a converse approach to the prevailing reductionism in Zoology, and
  • broadening the context, to encompass the bewildering diversity of other ungulates, and mammals in general.

It is only when one stands back far enough to combine detailed scrutiny with a panoramic view of hippotragins, bovids, ruminants, ungulates, and mammals that the extreme position of the sable antelope becomes fully apparent.

Posted on December 16, 2023 04:03 AM by milewski milewski


In the following ( the individual resembles an adult female, but can be identified as adolescent male by virtue of the dark preputial tip.

Posted by milewski 7 months ago

@paradoxornithidae @matthewinabinett

I find it intriguing that Hippotragus niger is so convergent with Rupicapra rupicapra in colouration and sexual monomorphism, because the two spp. could hardly differ more in one aspect of their sociality and gregariousness. The latter is sexually segregated except during the mating season (mainly in November), whereas the former is sexually non-segregated.

Posted by milewski 7 months ago


Mature males of the wild goat (Capra aegagrus) resemble the sable antelope in having conspicuous colouration, including a white belly crisply differentiated from dark flanks.

However, a remarkable difference is that, in this caprin, the prepuce is hardly apparent ( and

In the domestic goat (Capra hircus), the ventral panel can be dark, instead of pale. However, the prepuce remains inconspicuous (

The following of a mature male individual of the Nubian ibex (Capra nubiana) shows the prepuce clearly, confirming that it is not advertised. Instead, in genus Capra, the olfactory and visual function of a ventral tassel seems to have been transferred to the masculine beard:

Posted by milewski 7 months ago


In the common eland (Taurotragus oryx), there is a tendency for the ventral silhouette of the torso to be accentuated by means of a dark mid-ventral stripe (

This feature is individually variable, and clearest in the equatorial subspecies, Taurotragus oryx pattersonianus (

However, this feature of colouration does not accentuate masculinity in the common eland.

This is because a) it is present in females as well as males (, and b) it omits the prepuce itself, which tends to be bare, and inconspicuously flesh-coloured (

Taurotragus oryx pattersonianus:

Taurotragus oryx oryx:

Posted by milewski 7 months ago

The following ( shows that the dark preputial colouration is already present in juvenile males at the stage when the horns are only about as long as the head (i.e. less than half of their mature length). In other words, the punctuation that advertises the presence of a penis is a relatively precocial feature in Hippotragus niger niger.

Another point of interest in this series of photos of H. niger, taken in various zoos:

Please scroll to the photo taken in Kolmarden Wildlife Park. This shows a mature female individual, ruminating in a posture of sternal recumbency. The point of interest is that the bare skin, exposed on the abdomen just anterior to the hindleg, is flesh-coloured, not pigmented. This means that the bare skin of both the inguinal region and the perineum is flesh-coloured in H. niger.

Posted by milewski 7 months ago

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