The Big 5 have been mesmerising travelers to South Africa for many years, but these five big and exotic animals are not the only news worthy animals on this beautiful continent. South Africa boasts with a diverse and abundant wild life that also includes the Small 5, Ugly 5 and Shy 5. Let’s meet them.
The Small 5:
The lesser known small five won’t have travelers plan their holidays for the sole purpose of spotting them, even so they play a vital part in the ecosystem of South Africa. They are also, very cleverly, named after their big five counterparts namely the elephant shrew, the antlion, the buffalo weaver, the leopard tortoise and the rhino beetle.
Getting its name from the lengthened snout that resembles an elephant’s trunk, the elephant shrew is the most adorable, and hardest to spot, of the Small 5. Weighing in at around 28g the soft, furry rodent has a head and body length of only 10 cm. So cute!
The ferocious antlion is named for its lion-like method of ambushing prey. It uses a heightened sense of vibration (transmitted through the hairs on its body and legs) to detect the passing of insects. Waiting in its pit, with its jaws opened wide and barely visible under a thin layer of sand, the antlion strikes and drags its prey into the sand. Small, but tough!
Buffalo weavers live in the dry savannah and acacia woodland areas, where they forage omnivorously on the ground, often following the trail of buffalo herds. A beautiful find among bird watchers, these social birds tend to form large, loosely ordered colonies. Weavers build massive communal roosts in tall acacia and baobab trees, which can be easily spotted for their untidy appearance.
The large leopard tortoise gets its name from its attractive black and yellow speckled shell, clearly resembling a leopard’s spots. With a general lifespan of 100 years, it is the world’s fourth largest species, growing up to 70cm long and weighing over 50kg. The slow-paced tortoises are one of the easiest to spot of the Small 5.
The last Small 5 insect is the rhino beetle, which gets his name from the distinctive horn-like structure on its head. Both sexes have horns, which makes it difficult to distinguish between them. The horn makes an excellent digging and climbing tool, while the males also use them in combat during mating season. Adult rhino beetles are an impressive 5cm long. Not only are they one of the largest beetle varieties in the world; they are also proportionally the strongest animal in the world, known to lift 850 times their own weight.
The Ugly 5:
The exclusive Ugly 5 club consists out of the five underdogs only a mother could love; the warthog, the wildebeest, the hyena, the vulture and the Marabou stork.
Warthogs are day animals and spend most of their time looking for food. They are normally found in family groups and has the peculiar habit of kneeling on the front knees while feeding and foraging in a localised area. They are promiscuous as both sexes will mate with more than one partner. Warthogs can frequently be found at waterholes where they dig in the marsh and wallow in the mud with obvious enthusiasm.
The wildebeest looks as if it’s made from spare parts – a buffalo head, antelope body and horse’s tail. The large head and heavy front end are out of proportion to the slender hindquarters and spindly legs. One term for a herd of wildebeest is an implausibility, an apt description indeed. We might find their looks and feeding habits repulsive but they are the biological waste controllers, clearing up after others.
Associated with African myth and folklore, the hyena’s reputation as a backstabbing opportunist often gets him a bad rap. His sloping back and short hind legs add to the negative image of a permanently skulking creature. He prefers to scavenge rather than hunt and has the strongest jaws on the African continent. The only parts of a kill not fully digested are hair, horns and hooves.
Vultures are the villains of the piece; ugly, squabbling and filthy. It’s true that when vultures are at a kill it’s every bird for himself, but they don’t circle dying animals waiting to cash in. They soar on thermals looking for their next meal. Many vultures have featherless heads and necks which prevent bacteria and parasites burrowing into their feathers and causing infection due to feeding on rotting carcasses.
The marabou stork is also known as the undertaker because of his cloaked appearance from behind, his long skinny legs and tufts of white hair. He has a bare head and neck and a distensible pouch. He stands around a lot and has the particularly unattractive characteristic of defecating on his legs which gives them a whitish colour. In terms of ugliness, he should take first place.
The Shy 5:
The Shy 5 are a completely different set of animals highlighting those more elusive and lesser-known species which include the largest rodent in Africa. They are the meerkat, the aardvark, the porcupine, the aardwolf and the bat-eared fox. All are nocturnal animals except for the meerkat which makes seeing these animals even more difficult to spot yet rewarding when you actually do see them.
Standing to attention at number one is the squirrel-sized meerkat. You’re unlikely to meet a lone meerkat as they live in groups known as mobs – each member of the mob is responsible for gathering food, looking after babies and keeping a keen eye out for predators.
Arguably the strangest looking of the bunch, the aardvark resembles an odd mix between a rabbit, piglet and kangaroo. This member of the elusive Shy 5 group possesses serious digging powers that are used to break open ant hills, create escape routes and gain access to delicious snacks found within termite mounds. Although destructive, the holes created are often given a renovation and used by other members of the Shy 5.
Although happy to travel alone, a group of porcupines is aptly named a prickle. With up to 30 000 quills, this is not an animal you want to cross! When feeling threatened porcupines rattle their quills to ward off predators; if that fails, these prickly rodents go into reverse, ramming their assailant.
At first glance, this dog-like animal could pass as a small, striped hyena. The main difference being their diet, where the hyena is a meat scavenger, the aardwolf feasts on termites. As their food source cannot be shared or transported, aardwolves tend to be solitary foragers who love to use burrows created by other Shy 5 members, particularly the aardvark. When feeling threatened the aardwolf puffs up its mane – much like a cat would raise its hackles – and produces a roar of sorts.
Although you may be imaging something along the lines of “all the better to hear you with my dear”, this member of the Shy 5 uses its satellite-sized ears for thermoregulation and to detect insect movement underground. The bat-eared fox is an insectivore as their diet mainly consists of beetles, ants, grasshoppers, termites and other creepy crawlies most of us would rather avoid!
Now you are all caught up on the fives! Be sure to be on the lookout for them on your next visit to Moditlo River Lodge.