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Okapi (Okapia johnstoni) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Okapi Okapia johnstoni

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • Common names
    • Okapi (pronounced oh-COP-ee)
  • Local names
    • Atti (from Wambuti pygmy tribe)
    • Okapi derived from the pygmy word O'Api which, when spoken by pygmies, sounds like okapi.
  • Other scientific nomenclature
    • Okapia liebrecht originated when, in the late 1800s, Forsyth Major concluded that a specimen of skin and skulls were a different species.
    • Okapia erikssoni was named in 1903 by Lord Rothschild who found the skin of a female okapi to be different. (note: both observations were false).
  • Okapi were unknown to the western world (occupy dense African rain forest habitats) until discovered by Sir Harry Johnston in 1901. Species name is in Johnston's honor.

Evolutionary History

  • Closest living okapi relative is the giraffe.
    • Some researchers dissent, pointing out that important differences in reproductive organs, fetuses, bile acid salts and skeletal anatomy make the okapi more likely to not belong in the giraffe family at all, but to be a closer relative of the nilgai antelope in the bovid (cattle) family. (Benirschke & Hagey 2006) (Spinage 1968)
  • Giraffe family (giraffes and okapi) dates to about 15-12 million years ago (Miocene) (Dagg & Foster 1982).
  • Some two million years ago (Pleistocene) a now-extict okapi species (Okapia sp.) lived in East Africa in present-day Tanzania. At the same time in the same place, now extinct relatives of the giraffes existed.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Artiodactyla* (or Cetartiodactyla) (even-toed hoofed animals: includes pigs, sheep goats, cattle, deer)

Family: Giraffidae (giraffes and the okapi)

Genus: Okapi

Species: Okapi johnstoni - okapi

Describer: P.L. Sclater (1901) Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1901 vol. I p. 50

**New anatomical and DNA evidence on the relationship between Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates) and Cetacea (whales and dolphins) recently led to a merging of the two orders into a new group, Cetartiodactyla (Montgelard, 1997; reviewed in Kulemzina, 2009). As of October 2012, experts had not agreed on whether to define Cetartiodactyla as an official taxonomic order that would replace Artiodactyla and Cetacea. Some continue to list okapi in the order Artiodactyla (Franklin, 2011) or use the term Cetartiodactyla without defining it as an order (IUCN, 2008).

Page Citations

Benirschke & Hagey (2006)
Colbert (1938)
Daag & Forster (1982)
Spinage (1968)

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