SA Animal Profile – Eland and the mystery of the clicking

The eland, Tragelaphus oryx, is an intriguing animal, though of course to me, every animal is intriguing. The largest antelope in southern Africa, it seems that they’re often dismissed in favour of more elusive or prettier animals. With a large bovine-like torso and tan to grey colouration, it could be said that they aren’t the most beautiful of the antelopes out here. However, if you delve a little deeper, you’ll find that they are an impressive animal full of surprises.

The first thing that struck me when I came across eland on the reserve was their size. In truth, it shouldn’t have, I had already known they were the largest antelope in the region and having already met kudu, another large species, I should’ve been mentally prepared. Yet it was still a revelation. A large male (known as a bull) can reach 1.7m at his shoulder, with a female (a cow) only slightly shorter at 1.5m. Bearing in mind that doesn’t account for a lifted head or their horns, and that I’m only 1.5m high myself, I was a little taken aback – even though I sitting in the back of a pickup at the time.

Unlike most of the other local antelope such as impala, waterbuck and kudu, both sexes have horns which are relatively straight but twist round. According to an article in Wild magazine; the horns of a female are longer, more widely set and thinner than the male’s. Whilst the adults are rarely predated due to their size, their offspring is vulnerable and the horns provide a weapon for parental protection.

The background reading for this profile produced a fact that I had come across before. The eland has a very fast walking pace, too fast for a human to keep up. In addition, their trot at 22km/hr can be maintained for many hours, both useful for covering ground rapidly. This is attributed to their “lifestyle” of nomadity, rather than defending territories, where they move according to the feeding resources available.

Another movement executed by the eland, unexpected but reasonable, is their jumping. Imagine an individual if you will, the large cumbersome torso and a weight of between 460kg (cow) – 700/840kg (male average/maximum). Then imagine a wall next to it, 2m high – that’s 30cm higher than a male, half a metre higher than a female. And finally, imagine that eland jumping over said wall. From a standing position. An impressive feat. Compare that to another source of background reading which says they can actually jump 3m from a standing start.

Can you imagine this eland leaping 2-3m?  Photo by Hayley Muir

Can you imagine this eland leaping 2-3m?
Photo by Hayley Muir

The last exciting fact I’ll mention, though the eland has many more interesting features, is something of a mystery. Listen out next time you’re in the bush, and you might hear an odd clicking sound, like two bits of wood tapped together. One line of thought is that the clicking is caused by the hooves when the two halves clap against each other whilst moving. Another, which I think is the most believed, is that a tendon snaps when slipping over the animal’s knee joint. It may be that this clicking allows them to stay together easier, and one study suggests that it is used in hierarchy and dominance by the eland bulls. Either way, it’s quite useful for me when I’m in the thicker bush as it tells me when there are eland nearby.

Eland at the waterhole  (photo by Hayley Muir)

Eland at the waterhole
(photo by Hayley Muir)

Naturally, I’ve not covered every aspect of the eland’s morphology, ecology or behaviour, that could be excessive. Instead, I’ve chosen those which I found particularly interesting. Hopefully, what I’ve covered will persuade you to not underestimate this docile-looking species, and appreciating them for their unique characteristics. Perhaps you will join me in discovering that they have their own type of beauty.

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SA Animal Profile – The Dwarf Mongoose (an introduction)

If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you will hopefully have noticed that the common thread, or my current raison d’être, is a particularly lovely species, the Dwarf Mongoose (Helogale parvula). Similar looking to a mustelid, such as the UK weasel or stoat, this small (hence the name) animal is one of a range of mongoose species, and is found in the southern savanna and parts of the south west of the African continent. In the Limpopo Province of South Africa (where I’m located), they are a fairly common animal.


Dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula)

The dwarf mongoose is beautiful creature – slim, glossy-coated and fascinating. A highly sociable animal, they live in groups consisting of a dominant alpha pair, their offspring and other subordinate adults. The dominant male and female are the only ones to breed, producing an average litter size of three pups. All adults contribute to the care of the offspring – babysitting, warming and transporting them. Additionally, other females may lactate to feed the pups, despite not breeding themselves.

Each group has a territory, which may overlap between adjacent groups and cause hostility. If two packs do meet, the smaller group usually avoids the larger one. Within the range of their territory, the mongoose have a network of sleeping burrows, day refuges and latrines. The former are normally termite mounds, although trees are also used.

A standard day for a dwarf mongoose starts quite casually. Upon getting up from the sleeping burrow, the group usually spend some time sunbathing and grooming. The amount of time can vary from group to group, and from day to day. When they’re ready, they leave the sleeping burrow for a day of foraging.


Mutual grooming at a refuge

The diet of a dwarf mongoose typically consists of insects such as grasshoppers, beetles, and larvae, though small vertebrates may also be taken. Foraging occurs in grass, through leaf litter and around logs and trees. As they often need to dig for food, dwarf mongoose are vulnerable to predators including birds of prey, jackals and snakes. While an individual will often pause foraging to scan for predators, they cannot be vigilant during the actual digging process. One mongoose may act as a sentinel, where it sits in a prominent position such as on a rock or log and will alarm call if a threat appears. A sentinel is posted for about 40% of foraging time.


Sentinal mongoose on a rock

The end of the day is reverse to the beginning. The dwarf mongoose will return to their sleeping burrow at some point in the few hours of sunset (it can be two hours before, or less than half hour before), either the same burrow as the morning or a different one within their territory. They normally spend some time sunbathing and grooming before heading down to sleep.

There are many aspects of their behaviour that I haven’t covered, but this has been only a general overview and introduction to the dwarf mongoose species.


These aren’t the mongoose you’re looking for

Also known as, the frustrating third week. It started off hopefully, looking for a dwarf mongoose group I’d not yet met. However, after two days of walking through the bush without finding them, my mood was not so cheerful. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy those two days, I saw a number of new insects and birds, and potentially even a crocodile down at the waterhole! I’m undecided about this last one. I had just arrived at the waterhole, when I saw something rather large on the opposite side, sliding into the water. Logic indicates that it probably was a crocodile.

Image The waterhole/lake where I (maybe) saw the crocodile

The following days I was with a different group, one that found easily. They are a lovely group, though following them through the scrub was quite exasperating as the weather was quite cool and chilly. When the wind blows, foraging mongoose just stop their activity, leaving you to panic that you’ve lost them because they’ve moved during the windy time and you didn’t hear. Sometimes true, sometimes they have just stopped moving. I lost them once that way, and spent a couple of hours wandering around calling them. At one point, I thought I had found them, but it turned out to be a neighbouring group where their territory overlaps. I rewarded the group nonetheless for coming to my call. The training needs to be reinforced even if they weren’t the mongoose I was looking for. I lost them again the following day, but luckily found them both times.

To cap off the week, I spent Saturday with a recently habituated group. This meant moving slowly and carefully throughout the day, trying not to cause an alarm call and for them to scatter in all directions. As a recent group, only a few are comfortable coming close, but I’d been told of a confident individual. I was a little wary, confident individuals in other groups are usually quite bad-tempered and growl at the others for the food, or spend the whole time in the weights box. This one was different though, she was calm and patient, able to handfeed without biting your finger. But what made me fall for her was the fact that she licks your fingers to get the crumbs of food. She is absolutely adorable. Later in the day when I was following the group, I had settled onto a rock whilst they foraged around me. She happily climbed up onto the rock next to me, and looked up at me, as if to say “time for more food?” Unfortunately it wasn’t, so she soon left my side to forage, but I think that may be one of my favourite mongoose memories during this fieldwork.


Scientifically Macabre – examining skulls and bones

From 1st July 2013

The start of a new week and I was hiking through the bush, fruitlessly trying to find the dwarf mongoose. To keep my mind occupied, I begun a rough outline for a blog post. It was going to be “The Sorabi Skull”, about the skull that I found last week. Then in a dramatic twist of fate, mid-thought and macabre-minded already, I stumbled across another skull! And not just that, a number of other bones in the immediate area, presumably from the same animal. Oh the excitement.

Now, as mentioned, this is slightly macabre. Getting excited over bits of a dead animal? My non-biological friends look at me weirdly when I show them the skulls I have at home (sheep, small mammals and a bird). However to me, bones – particularly skulls – are fascinating. I love taking apart owl pellets and otter spraints, identifying animals from the bones and comparing the different skulls. In addition, thinking about how an animal’s body neatly fits together with the skeleton, muscles, ligaments and tendons. It puzzles me when someone doesn’t find it even remotely interesting, but each to their own and all that jazz.

So, the Sorabi skull, i.e. my first South Africa skull this year. Oddly enough, this one wasn’t on the ground. In fact, it was hung in a bush. At first, I wondered as to a leopard perhaps eating in a tree and dropping it, but there were no branches above. Maybe someone else had found it, and just chucked it away, and it landed in a bush? The mystery remains. Even more so, to the species. I will admit to poor identification skills on larger mammal skulls – especially in a different country. 

The skull in a bush. Odd.


Back to the new skeleton, and it was a decent number of bones, I shall not lie. Not least that there was a complete upper skull and two lower jawbones. Now, I could identify this one – zebra! Jackpot! Why you ask? My undergraduate dissertation was on zebras, and I like to know as much as possible about a study animal, even if it is from a dead one. I even know what zebra steak tastes like (pretty good by the way).


This was definitely making up for the lack of dwarf mongoose. And the day got even better when I found two African Land Snail shells, followed by a tortoise shell! The tortoise isn’t fully decomposed yet though … desiccated thankfully. With any luck it will decompose completely and I can take a proper look at the shell without touching bits of dead tortoise. Now that is rather macabre.

To finish off, I hope that you either agree with me in finding skulls/bones/shells fascinating, or that you don’t judge me too much. And, it goes without saying, though I will say it anyway, that I don’t ever kill anything in order to gain the bones/shells. I just stumble across them in the bush (sometimes literally). Or in the case of owl pellets and otter spraints, I analyse them for ecological purposes. 


Also found since: an impala skull



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Moth Solo – A new adventure, the battery strikes back and return of the ermine.

I was first introduced to moth trapping in 2012 during my placement year with the Field Studies Council at Margam Discovery Centre (South Wales) when one of the tutors fixed the moth trap there and set it out. The species that sticks most in my mind was the Drinker moth, I was particularly impressed by its antennae. This year I took a short course in invertebrates, as one of a number of extra-curricular ecology modules that I took alongside my third year at university. It was run by Dr. Phil Ward – an expert on invertebrates and a county recorder in Radnorshire. He introduced different types of moth traps, and over two nights we caught a variety of different moths – including a gorgeous Poplar Hawkmoth (L.populi).

A weekend in mid-June provided a good opportunity. I had the time, the need and the space. I was house-sitting for a family friend at their Bed and Breakfast / self-catered Farmhouse in mid Wales – Glanoer in Bettws, Llandrindod Wells, and they were keen for me to do some casual ecology surveys. I’d previously found otter spraint at the stream running through the smallholding, which surprised and amazed them. This time I wanted to do something that I’d been hoping to do for a long time: moth trapping.

I was keen to get going on some solo moth trapping, but was lacking something vital – some equipment. But the moth county recorders of Radnorshire came to the rescue and were kind enough to lend me two traps for the weekend, as well as discuss the best spots to place the traps. And so, I was ready to go.

The first night commenced, and I was doubtful. It was raining, windy and cold. Not a good start. I awoke bright and early, keen to check the traps but worried I hadn’t caught anything. My fears were unfounded. True, it was a low number, but I was thrilled! The two traps revealed 8 moths. Including three Hawkmoths! Two Poplars (L.populi) and a new one for me, the Elephant Hawkmoth (D.elpenor, photo below), which was absolutely stunning.


And so to the second night, the dreary weather was repeated though it was slightly less windy. However, only one trap this time. Although the light had been working on one I went to bed, the battery had evidently died not long after. Perhaps in retaliation for being stuck out in the rain all night?

Again, I was not disappointed. Another 6 moths! No Hawkmoths this time, but some gorgeous moths nonetheless. One thing that struck me was the White Ermine moth (S.lubricipeda, photo below). I’d caught one on both nights – not the same one, I’d kept the first one until after the second night to ensure that. What intrigued me was that the second individual was in exactly the same spot on the moth trap as the previous one. Was it that the spot was preferred by that species? Had the first individual left a mark there of some sort, perhaps a pheromone or scent? Very mysterious – if you know of a potential answer, I would be very interested to hear.


To finish off, before I end up rambling about moths for ages, my aunt was delighted to have identified moths to add to her smallholding species list, and was astonished by some of them – particularly the Hawkmoths and the White Ermine. The county recorders were pleased, this was the first moth recording in that area for at least thirty years, if not more. Although I’d not caught any species of special excitement, they were very glad to have recordings at all and are keen for me to do more trapping when I’m next visiting. Of course, I will happily oblige. Lastly, I’m satisfied that I’ve done my first solo moth trapping and can’t wait to do more!

NB: If you’re interested, the identification book that I used was The Concise Guide to Macro Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Martin Townsend and Paul Waring, published by British Wildlife Publishing, and identifications were confirmed by the county recorders.

PS: I know it doesn’t fit exactly but I am rather proud of my post title here, and feeling slightly geeky.

A favourite from the moth trapping: Clouded Border (L.marginata)

Clouded Border, Lomaspilis marginata