New paper in Scientific Reports


Identifying the true number of specimens of the extinct blue antelope (Hippotragus leucophaeus)

Hempel E, Bibi F, Faith JT, Brink JS, Kalthoff DC, Kamminga P, Paijmans JLA, Westbury MV, Hofreiter M & Zachos FE. Sci Rep 11, 2100 (2021). Published online 22 January 2021.


Native to southern Africa, the blue antelope (Hippotragus leucophaeus) is the only large African mammal species known to have become extinct in historical times. However, it was poorly documented prior to its extinction ~ 1800 AD, and many of the small number of museum specimens attributed to it are taxonomically contentious. This places limitations on our understanding of its morphology, ecology, and the mechanisms responsible for its demise. We retrieved genetic information from ten of the sixteen putative blue antelope museum specimens using both shotgun sequencing and mitochondrial genome target capture in an attempt to resolve the uncertainty surrounding the identification of these specimens. We found that only four of the ten investigated specimens, and not a single skull, represent the blue antelope. This indicates that the true number of historical museum specimens of the blue antelope is even smaller than previously thought, and therefore hardly any reference material is available for morphometric, comparative and genetic studies. Our study highlights how genetics can be used to identify rare species in natural history collections where other methods may fail or when records are scarce. Additionally, we present an improved mitochondrial reference genome for the blue antelope as well as one complete and two partial mitochondrial genomes. A first analysis of these mitochondrial genomes indicates low levels of maternal genetic diversity in the ‘museum population’, possibly confirming previous results that blue antelope population size was already low at the time of the European colonization of South Africa.