Impala (Aepyceros melampus) are an African antelope species native to the grasslands and woodland borders of southern and eastern Africa, ranging from South Africa north to Kenya. The savanna habitat provides a wealth of diverse vegetation for these herbivores. Impala have developed a number of adaptations to make the most of their environment.
The Varied Impala Diet
Impala can eat a number of different plant species, depending on what specific area they inhabit and the season. Impala are known as mixed feeders -- they are physically able to both graze and browse, depending on food availability. In the wet season, impala prefer to graze on young, lush grasses; in the dry season, they will browse on shrubs.
Specific Dietary Adaptations
Impala have physical traits that allow them to consume and digest their food efficiently. For one thing, Impala are ruminants; they have four-chambered stomachs that allow them to extract as much nutrient as possible from whatever they consume. Further, impala lack upper incisors and canine teeth, and their cheek teeth are folded and ridged. This dental configuration allows impala to clip grasses close to the ground but does not limit them exclusively to this type of eating.
Impala Roles in the Ecosystem
As herbivores, impala take on a primary consumer role in the African savanna food web by eating grasses and shrubs. They consume grasses and shrubs to energy, muscle and fat, and contribute those along the food web: Impala provide an essential resource for these other organisms as well. Carnivores, or secondary consumers, prey on impala. These animals, including leopards, lions and hyenas, require a diet made up of herbivore species like impala to survive.
Behavioral Adaptations for Feeding
Food is not always abundant for impalas, so they have adopted behavioral adaptations to compensate for times when food becomes scarce. During the rainy season when food is readily accessed, males establish territories that females move in and out of depending on the availability of food. In dry seasons when food sources become less available, these territories are abandoned by the males or become much smaller and therefore more easily defensible. Impala are partially migratory; some individuals migrate to areas of increased food supply and others do not.
- European Journal of Wildlife Research: Diets of Savanna Ungulates From Stable Carbon Isotope Composition of Faeces
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Aepyceros Melampus
- African Wildlife Foundation: Impala
- BMC Ecology: Benefits of Migration in a Partially Migratory Tropical Ungulate
- National Geographic Education: African Savanna
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Ruminant
- Marietta College: Environmental Biology - Ecosystems
- Anup Shah/Digital Vision/Getty Images