Blue wildebeest fossils dating back some two and a half million years ago are common and widespread. The earliest fossils of the black wildebeest were found in sedimentary rock in Cornelia in the Orange Free State and dated back about eight hundred thousand years. Today, five subspecies of the blue wildebeest are recognised while the black wildebeest has no named subspecies.

Each year, some East African populations of blue wildebeest have a long-distance migration, seemingly timed to coincide with the annual pattern of rainfall and grass growth. The timing of their migrations in both the rainy and dry seasons can vary considerably (by months) from year to year. At the end of the wet season (May or June in East Africa), wildebeest migrate to dry-season areas in response to a lack of surface (drinking) water. When the rainy season begins again (months later), animals quickly move back to their wet-season ranges.

Aerial photography has revealed that there is a level of organisation in the movement of the herd that cannot be apparent to each individual animal; for example, the migratory herd exhibits a wavy front, and this suggests that there is some degree of local decision-making taking place. Numerous documentaries feature wildebeest crossing rivers, with many being eaten by crocodiles or drowning in the attempt. While having the appearance of frenzy, recent research has shown a herd of wildebeest possesses what is known as”swarm intelligence”, whereby the animals systematically explore and overcome the obstacle as one.

In the Serengeti ecosystem, Tanzania, wildebeest may help facilitate the migration of other, smaller-bodied grazers, such as Thomson’s gazelles, which eat the new-growth grasses stimulated by wildebeest foraging.

Difference between Black and Blue Wildebeest:  Both species of wildebeest are even-toed, horned, greyish-brown ungulates resembling cattle. Males are larger than females and both have heavy forequarters compared to their hindquarters. They have broad muzzles, Roman noses, shaggy manes and tails. 

The most striking morphological differences between the black and blue wildebeest are

  • The orientation and curvature of their horns and the color of their coats. The horns of blue wildebeest protrude to the side then curve downwards before curving up back towards the skull, while the horns of the black wildebeest curve forward then downward before curving upwards at the tips.
  • Blue wildebeest tend to be a dark grey color with stripes, but may have a bluish sheen. 
  • Blue Wildebeest are much larger and heavier of the two species.
  • Blue Wildebeest have a black mane and tail (Black Wildebeest have whitish tails and manes).
  • Blue Wildebeest often graze in mixed herds with especially zebras, but also with giraffe and impala, in open savannah environments with high chances of predation. This grouping strategy reduces predation risk because larger groups decrease each individual’s chance of being hunted, and predators are more easily seen in open areas. They are alert to the warning signals emitted by other animals such as baboons.