oryx (ôrˈĭks) [key], name for several small, horselike antelopes, genus Oryx, found in deserts and arid scrublands of Africa and Arabia. They feed on grasses and scrub and can go without water for long periods. Oryxes are light in color with dark patches on the face and legs. They have slight shoulder humps, tufted tails, and straight or slightly curved slender horns that point backward.
The common oryx ( O. gazella ) ranges from S Africa along the east coast to Tanzania. It is beige with black or brown markings. The variety found in the southern part of this range has extremely long horns and is known as the gemsbok; a large male gemsbok stands more than 4 ft (120 cm) at the shoulder and weighs up to 450 lb (200 kg). The E African variety is smaller, with shorter horns, and is called the beisa. The white, or scimitar-horned, oryx ( O. tao ) of the N African deserts has long, back-curved horns; it is nearly white with chestnut markings.
The Arabian, or Beatrix, oryx ( O. leucoryx ) is the smallest oryx, standing up to 40 in. (100 cm) high. It is white with dark brown and black markings. The Arabian oryxes once ranged over the deserts of SW Asia and were hunted by nomads for flesh and hides. However, they were nearly exterminated in the 20th cent. by hunting from automobiles, and survived only in zoos by the 1970s. Since 1982 a captive breeding program has successfully reintroduced them to first Oman and then other Middle Eastern countries.
The oryx is classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Artiodactyla, family Bovidae.