The little five

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The concept of The Big Five hails from a bygone era, when the five animals in question – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo – were supposedly the hunter’s most challenging adversaries.

The mythologising of that era has made them a major draw for today’s tourist, and safari operators trumpet their Big Five credentials loudly. Some even import a rhino or two onto their property to make up the full flush. Sadly, this can promote a rather blinkered 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.

Leopard tortoise
The leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis, pictured above) is the largest and most widespread of Africa’s land tortoises. It gets its name from the spotted pattern on its carapace, rather than any leopard-like stealth or elegance. Adults average 8–12kg in weight, and may exceptionally exceed 35kg. Tortoises may be slow, but the tank-like protection of their shell means they have little to fear from predators. Sadly, fire presents a more serious hazard, and burnt-out shells litter the bush. Though 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 larger female while mating – which is a cumbersome and strenuous affair. The female buries her 6–15 eggs in a shallow trough that she digs herself. Hatchlings fall prey to a variety of predators, but survivors may lumber on for 50 years or more.

Elephant shrew
Elephant shrews bear little resemblance to elephants, except for their long, mobile snouts. But then neither do they have much in common with shrews. Scientists have separated these furry little creatures from shrews and other insectivores into an unrelated and uniquely African order, the Macroscelidea.

Ironically, this order is now thought to share a distant evolutionary ancestry with elephants, as part of the ‘superorder’ Afrotheria.

There are 15 species of elephant shrew. All have large eyes and ears (quite distinct from the tiny ones of real shrews), and powerful back legs that propel them after their insect prey in a lightning-fast series of bounds. They are also highly territorial animals, and some species maintain a network of trails around their patch, marking them out with scent signals and keeping them clear with regular high-speed patrols.

Rhinocerous beetle
Rhinoceros beetles (Dynastinae) get their name from the striking curved horns sported by the males of larger species. Although these animals hardly bear comparison with real rhinos, they are nonetheless pretty impressive as far as insects go.

In fact, their sub-family includes some of the world’s largest invertebrates, such as the enormous Atlas beetle (Chalcosoma atlas) of South-east Asia, which may reach 145mm in length.

No African species quite attains this size. Nonetheless, many are large, robust insects, and endowed with prodigious strength. Scientists have calculated that a rhinoceros beetle can carry a load 850 times its own weight, making it arguably the strongest animal in the world. The males’ horns are, like those of rhinos, used for territorial combat; females are hornless. Adults eat mostly sap and rotting fruit, while their fat white larvae eat rotting wood or compost. Both play an important ecological role in recycling plant material.

Buffalo weaver
Buffalo weavers (sub-family Bubalornithinae) are seed-eating birds of the weaver group that have 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 build large, untidy nest stacks in large trees – or sometimes pylons. These are fashioned from thorny twigs, all collected from within a kilometre of the nest. Inside are a number of woven chambers lined with grass and leaves, each of which accommodates a breeding pair. The nests are usually positioned at the end of branches and, as extra protection from predators, often over water. In spring the males gather at the site, fanning their tails and chattering to attract females.

Ant-lion
Ant-lions are small, winged insects that, like lacewings, belong to the order Neuroptera. The name is derived from their larvae, whose huge sickle-like jaws are among the most fearsome in the animal kingdom. The predatory prowess of these tiny creatures is just as impressive as that of their feline namesake – and their methods even more gruesome.

Ever noticed 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 buries itself at the centre. Any unsuspecting ant that tumbles over the edge slips down into the waiting jaws below. If its victim attempts 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.

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