The belief of a generation has made them a significant draw for today’s travellers, and safari operators trumpet their Big Five credentials loudly. Some even introduce a rhino or two onto their property to make up the full flush. Unfortunately, this can promote a somewhat narrow-minded view of the natural world: “Not much about” comes the disappointed refrain after a lion-less game drive. But the truth is that there’s always plenty about, much of it right under your nose. And where better to start than with the big five’s smaller, but no less fascinating, namesakes? By Mike Unwin.
Rhinoceros beetles (Dynastinae, featured above) got their name from the striking curved horns sported by the males of bigger species. Despite the fact that these animals hardly bear comparison with real rhinos, they are nonetheless exceptional.
In fact, their sub-family includes some of the world’s largest invertebrates, such as the giant Atlas beetle (Chalcosoma atlas) of South-east Asia, which may reach 145mm in length.
No African species quite attain this size. Nonetheless, many are large, robust insects, and endowed with immense strength. Scientists have calculated that a rhinoceros beetle can carry approximately 850 times its weight, which makes it arguably the strongest animal in the world. The males’ horns are similar to those of rhinos, used for territorial combat; the females are hornless. The Adults consume mostly sap and rotting fruit, while their fat white larvae eat rotting wood or compost. Both play an essential ecological role in recycling plant material.Elephant shrew
Elephant shrews bear little resemblance to elephants, except for their long, mobile snouts. However neither do they have much in common with shrews. Scientists have separated these small creatures from shrews and other insectivores into an unrelated and uniquely African order, the Macroscelidea.
Ironically, this order is now considered to share a distant evolutionary ancestry with elephants, as part of the ‘superorder’ Afrotheria.
There are 15 species of elephant shrew. All of which have large eyes and ears (quite distinct from the tiny ones of real shrews), and sturdy back legs that propel them after their insect prey in a lightning-fast series of bounds. They are also highly territorial animals, and a few species maintain a network of trails around their patch, marking them out with scent signals and keeping them clear with regular high-speed patrols.
The leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis) is the most prominent and most widespread of Africa’s land tortoises. It got its name from the spotted pattern on its carapace, instead of any leopard-like stealth or elegance. Adults average 8–12kg in weight and may exceed 35kg. Tortoises may be slow creatures, but the tank-like protection of their shell entails that they have little fear of predators. Unfortunately, fire is a more serious hazard, and burnt-out shells litter the bush.
Though they may be strictly vegetarian, leopard tortoises will gnaw on bones – and even hyena droppings – for shell-building calcium. Males have a concave depression in the plastron (under-plate) that helps them balance on the bigger female while mating – which is a cumbersome and strenuous affair. The female buries her 6–15 eggs in a shallow hole that she digs herself. Hatchlings fall prey to a variety of predators, but survivors may lumber on for 50 years or more.
Buffalo weavers (sub-family Bubalornithinae) are seed-eating birds of the weaver group that has little in common with their grumpy bovine namesakes except, perhaps, their sociable behaviour and – in two species – their black colouration. They are bold, noisy birds that often forage with starlings, and are familiar visitors to camps and lodges. Buffalo weavers nest communally.
Males work together to construct vast, untidy nest stacks in large trees – or sometimes pylons. These are fashioned from thorny twigs, all gathered from within a kilometre of the nest. Inside are some woven chambers lined with grass and leaves, each of which accommodates a breeding pair. The nests are usually located at the end of branches and, as extra protection from predators, often over water. In spring the males meet at the site, fanning their tails and chattering to attract females.
Ant-lions are tiny, winged insects that, like lacewings, belong to the order Neuroptera. The name is obtained from their larvae, whose massive sickle-like jaws are among the most fearsome in the animal kingdom. The predatory prowess of these small creatures is just as impressive as that of their feline namesake – and their methods even more gruesome.
Have you ever come across those tiny conical depressions in a sandy track? These are the pit-traps of ant-lion larvae. At the bottom of each one lurks the larva. It digs its pit by crawling backwards in a downward spiral, then continues by burying itself at the centre. Any unsuspecting ant that tumbles over the edge slips down into the waiting jaws below. If its victim tries to scramble out, the ant-lion flings up showers of sand to bring it sliding back. Having sucked the vital fluids from its prey, it flicks the lifeless exoskeleton out of the pit and buries itself in readiness for the next one. Nice.
So take time to look down and be amazed by these small creatures, their prowess and ingenuity.